The Plastic Brain

brain bookJust a few decades ago, using the word “neuroplasticity” could get a brain scientist into trouble.

The concept ran counter to the dominant belief that the adult brain was “hard wired,” and that major change did not and could not occur. If you lost a portion of your brain to accident or stroke, you were out of luck: Whatever processes that section of your brain handled were lost to you forever.

Now neuroplasticity is practically a buzz word. A friend of mine recently suffered a small stroke; he says his therapists are all about neuroplasticity and how its principles can be used to train other parts of his brain to take over functions once handled by the damaged area.

In chapter after fascinating chapter of “The Brain That Changes Itself,” Norman Doidge relates how this shift occurred—how pioneering neuroscientists, aided by new technology, broke through the old belief to prove that our brains are constantly remodeling themselves, even as we grow old, and how the right therapeutic techniques can facilitate that process.

For example, one scientist found that post-stroke paralysis can really be learned non-use. Patients with relatively minor brain damage can go into “cortical shock” for a period of months, during which time the area of the brain linked to, say, a paralyzed arm, may begin to shrink—not because the neurons are dead but because they aren’t being used.

The brain operates on such use-it-or-lose it principles as “neurons that fire together wire together” and “neurons that fire apart wire apart,” so that what might be a temporary paralysis can become permanent unless the person receives proper therapy.

As well, undamaged parts of the brain can be trained to take over the functions of the damaged areas.

This, of course, is similar territory to that covered in Jill Bolte Taylor’s “My Stroke of Insight,” which was the subject of my last post.

However, Doidge covers more than strokes.

His topics range from congenital brain malformations (one of the people in his nicely peopled book was born without a left hemisphere), through brain changes that result from television watching, video games and Internet pornography, to changes that result from good, old-fashioned aging. (Yes, sigh, our brains’ neuroplasticity does decrease with age—but there’s still a lot we can do to counter loss of function, possibly even in the face of such diseases as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Disease.)

I love this book. Right now, as I write this, I am looking at page 90, where it says that “the elderly are more easily distracted and more prone to lose control of their ‘visual attention’.” Maybe that’s why, when I have a bunch of round cat dishes and round cups and round teapots on the counter as I attempt to multi-task feeding my cats and making myself tea, I have been known to put the tea in one of the cat bowls and the wet cat food that should go into the small metal bowls into the large metal bowl where the dry food should go.

There is help for this, according to Doidge—specifically a computer program by an outfit called Posit Science that speeds up visual processing and trains the brain to stay on task.

I do believe that during the four years I have been practicing qigong, I have been remodeling my brain to lessen the dominance of my ever-chattering intellectual mind so that my intuitive mind and body-based awareness can occasionally come to the fore. But perhaps there is more I ought to be doing for my brain and my life.

For starters, this cat bowl business has to stop, and so, come the new year, I will be looking into Posit Science and other brain training programs.

Hey, they worked for Dr. Stanley Karansky, who was 90 when “The Brain That Changes Itself” was published in 2007. He did the exercises in an auditory memory program for an hour and a quarter, three times a week, for three months. Not only did his auditory memory improve, but he felt more alert, found himself talking to people more, and his day and night driving improved. Apparently, the exercises stimulated not only his auditory memory but also the brain centers that regulate plasticity.

Indeed, perhaps even just reading “The Brain That Changes Itself” produces plastic changes in the brain. I have a whole new respect for my brain; indeed, I find myself feeling downright solicitous towards it. I envision it as being alive, ever-rearranging itself within the confines of my skull like a mass of animate gun-metal-gray silly putty, responding to whatever I present it with (and, no thank you, I won’t have that second glass of wine).

And as I close in hard on my 73rd birthday, I have a lot more hope for my future.

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