The Brain Man—-neuroplasticity—the brains amazing ability to heal

And yes that includes our so called “defective,” “mentally ill,” “brain disordered,” “schizophrenic,” and “bipolar” brains!! For my other pieces on neuroplasticity look here.

I usually try to stay away from copying whole articles these days, but a friend the other day told me fair use laws allow for this sort of copying for educational and non-commercial purposes. And I have linked to the original piece. In general I ask permission if it’s an individual, but this is a newspaper article with no cited author so it’s not so easy.

The brain man

September 10, 2008 – From The Age

THE elegant, old-world dining room of the Hotel Windsor during afternoon tea is the perfect setting to talk about the nature of consciousness, and Norman Doidge is on a roll. We’re here to talk about the revolution in brain science known as neuroplasticity and Dr Doidge has drifted slightly off topic.

“The big question in brain science has to do with consciousness, and it may well be that there’s some type of integration between quantum physics, consciousness and mind,” he says. “Nobody knows for sure, but many arrows are pointing in that direction.”

The discussion is engaging — if a little surreal at times — and it’s a good 15 minutes before we think to pour our tea.

A poet, essayist, psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who divides his time between Toronto and New York, Doidge is the author of The Brain That Changes Itself, an international bestseller translated into 14 languages, published in 40 countries and essential primer for anyone who wants to better understand their own brains and the considerable advances in neuroscience of the past two decades.

For 400 years, says Doidge, scientists saw the brain as a machine made up of parts that performed specific single functions. “According to that way of thinking, this meant that if a part was damaged, nothing could be done, and it made no sense to try to preserve your brain as you aged, that was pointless effort. And it regarded human nature, which emerges from the brain, as being as fixed as the brain. This turns out to be spectacularly wrong.”

In fact, we now know that the brain has a remarkable capacity for change, for repair and healing after injury and for learning, from cradle to grave. Gone is the idea that the brain you were born with is the brain you are stuck with and that once you reach your mental peak it’s all downhill into doddery dotage.

Given the right training and treatment, the brain can rewire itself to perform essential functions after even severe damage, and can improve itself through exercise — hence the recent explosion of brain fitness software.

Doidge is in town between writers’ festivals — Christchurch earlier this week, Brisbane next week — and tonight will take part in the Melbourne Conversations series at Federation Square, where he will be joined by brain scientists from the Howard Florey Institute and Natasha Mitchell, presenter of Radio National’s All in the Mind, to talk about things neurological.

The discussion promises to be far-reaching and fascinating. During our chat at the Windsor, Doidge ranges across topics including how culture shapes our brains, the “immaterial” nature of thought, psychosomatic medicine, free will and the mind, the closing gap between Western and Eastern world views, Freud, Cartesian dualism, the potential for abuse of our new neurological knowledge and the relative effectiveness of brainwashing versus indoctrination methods.

There is an intellectual rigour to Doidge’s manner, an unwillingness to oversimplify or to gloss over nuance and detail. And while thrilled about the potential our understanding of neuroplasticity offers society, he also sees downsides, especially in the effects on the brain of modern technology, particularly on the young.

“One of the things that is most characteristic of young people these days is the extent to which they are always wired up to some sort of technology.

“Any technology that we use rewires our brains — pencil and paper rewire our brains. But the problem with modern electronic technologies is that they’re extremely compatible with the brain. They emit electronic signals and the brain starts to take on the characteristics of those technologies. There’s no doubt in my mind that the internet, for instance, and the habits people get from web surfing, are leading to a decrease in attention span.

“Television has contributed to this, too. In your typical TV commercial there’s a change of shot every second, which triggers the brain’s orient response, and after a while people start to feel that if they’re not inundated with novelty they get bored and are unable to pay attention.”

And what of the risk of abuse or manipulation by the unscrupulous?

“There’s never been any important human discovery — fire, understanding of illnesses, you name it — that hasn’t been abused by somebody,” Doidge says. “We learn about viruses or bacteria and somebody wants to put them in weapons to kill people.

“Freudian insights were used by Madison Avenue and elsewhere in marketing to sell everything with sex and power. Yes, you can count of the fact that neuroplastic discoveries in some cases will be abused. I’ve thought a lot about that, and when writing my book I wondered whether the potential for good here is greater the potential for harm — I think the potential for good is greater than for harm.”

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About Monica Cassani

Author/Editor Beyond Meds: Everything Matters

9 Responses

  1. Gianna–
    You just concentrate on taking care of yourself! You don’t need the added stress of trying to think up something inspiring to write. You are inspiring just by being here! Hang in there!

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  2. I simply love you Gianna! I just got into a “battle” (once again, sigh) with someone who, well, is not a “Larry”, but close enough. The more of this kind of articles, the better (for me).

    Take care!

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  3. Sloopy Cowbell

    On the topic of neuroplasticity, this might interest..

    I just came across a rebuttal of John Von Neumann’s proposal of the “neural network” as a simulated model of the human brain…

    The author, Jonathan Tennenbaum, gave a presentation in 2001 at the Schiller Institute in Germany when he called into question everything we have been taught about the process of nerve impulses.

    Dr Tennenbaum claims it’s a gross simplification to think in terms of “signals” leaping across neuronal synapses . He says “the synapses themselves are complex living organs whose structures are always changing…”:

    Von Neumann simply arbitrarily assumed—contrary to all biological evidence—that the brain functions essentially as an electrical network, and that the response of an individual neuron, to the electrical pulses coming from other neurons, could be described by a simple mathematical function. He simply decided to ignore the fact, that a neuron is a living process! Well, you can’t ignore that, as even the reductionistic neurophysiology shows. But von Neumann just went ahead anyway..

    The result is an attempted computer simulation of brain function, by so-called “neural nets”..There may be some interest in this sort of organization of a computer system, but it has nothing to do with the reality of the human brain! …

    In reality, neither do the neurons behave like simple electronic components, nor do they interact in the simplistic way the “neural net” suggests. For example, the synapses, where the “signals” are supposed to be transmitted from one neuron to the other, are living organs whose structures are always changing…

    Already over 100 specialized chemical substances have been discovered, which are released on one side of the synapse and interact in a very complicated way with the neuron cell membrane on the other. The ongoing synthesis of those so-called neurotransmitter substances, as well as proteins and other substances that modify the properties of the synapse, depends on activity of the DNA in the neuron cell’s nucleus. That brings us back again to the endless complexities of “DNA regulation.” Furthermore, neurons interact in other ways, than by “hard-wired” electrical impulses or chemical signals across the synapses.

    This leads to a notable scandal. Despite intensive efforts, the reductionists have failed to establish any significant correlation whatsoever, in detail, between the internal features of our mental activity, in terms of thoughts, ideas, memories on the one hand, and the domain of bioelectrochemical events in the brain, on the other!

    We do know, that you need a brain, as a living organ, to think. But apart from that, the psychological and physiological domains are separated by an apparently unbridgeable gap. Is the world really dualistic? Or does the problem lie in the wrong choice of method?

    I love the idea of the synapses themselves being in a constant state of flux since it ties in with the cheering theory of neuroplasticity! Our brains are NOT hard-wired! That’s just another canard foisted on us by the charlatans in medicine.

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  4. Arianna

    Not to be shallow, but what about TiVo. I have made a mental note, every once in awhile of how often, we are bombarded with advertisement. It just boggles my mind!

    You know, you pick up a pencil, and that has an ad on it, or now web sites are having more sophisticated popups, that you have to close before you can continue on. This is with broadband. What gives a company, the audacity of putting a popup in your face for a free service?

    The worst bombardment comes from the internet, and also advertisement that is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Say you are looking for research on 5HTP. You will certainly find sites that seem to go over that issue, but instead, review 5HTP products proclaiming in a factul manner that their 5HTP produce is the best. A junk site, made to look like research. I feel like when I try to do a search on a specific subject, that I am wading through raw sewage.

    I’d say, on an average day, we are bombarded with at minimum 100 advertisements.

    For TV, I have a DVR box. That means you record the show, whenever you want, and then watch it later. If you start watching a TV show, 20 minutes after it’s started, then you can watch that entire TV show, fastforwarding through the commercials. What boggles my mind is that a one hour show is filled with 20 minutes of commercials! So, 1/3 of the show is commercials.

    Then, what about the fact that you are paying a good, healthy price for cable. Then, just like the networks, they fill each show with advertisment. So, why am I paying for something that has advertisements?

    But, LOL, yes, other than my personal resentment about how often we are bombarded with advertisement, I think it is scary for the younger generation.

    They are ALWAYS wired up, and find multi-tasking to be the norm. In reality, doing things, and focusing on what you are doing, is a form of meditation, mindfulness, and all this bit about multi-tasking is not mindful. These people, who are acting in a mindless manner, decade after decade, are going to wind up on pills.

    The most amazing thing in the world is meditation, and mindfulness, and I don’t see how younger people are going to get there, when our culture has an attention span of 1 millisecond.

    Best,
    Ari

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