The Brain That Changes Itself (Viking, 2007) is a fascinating sketch of the brain revolution underway today.
The author, Dr. Norman Doidge, is a psychiatrist and researcher at the University of Toronto and an award-winning science writer and poet.
In the book, he explores breakthroughs from the world of neuroscience, using personal accounts and insightful conversations with researchers on the frontiers of the new science.
Instead of the clock-like machine envisioned by the 17th-century thinker Rene Descartes, Doidge reveals how the brain is a highly flexible organ that can alter itself to overcome stroke damage, learning disabilities and maintain brain fitness, even into old age.
The implications are mind-bending. We meet a woman born with half a brain that rewired itself to work as a whole, blind people learning to see, a stroke patient who learns to play tennis again, aging brains rejuvenated and a woman labeled "retarded" who cured her deficits using brain exercises.
Good news for older adults
The brain’s plasticity is good news for older adults. Doidge gives the example of 90-year-old Stanley Karansky, a former physician. Karansky inserts a CD containing the auditory memory program into his computer and begins a series of brain exercises.
During the workout, Karansky identifies the frequency and direction of various sounds, and the order of certain syllables. He listens to stories and answers questions about them. Karansky does the exercises for 75 minutes, three times a week for three months.
At first, there is little change. After six weeks, he notices signs of improvement. He is answering more questions correctly, his mood has improved, his handwriting is better and he is more alert when driving. Karansky experiences benefits overall because he is stimulating not only his auditory memory but also the brain centers that regulate plasticity. He plans to skip a few months and then tackle the exercises again.
This auditory program was developed by Michael Merzenich, a driving force behind scores of neuroplastic practical inventions. Merzenich discovered that in order to keep the brain fit, we must learn something new rather than simply replaying already-mastered skills. According to Merzenich, the brain "is not an inanimate vessel that we fill; rather it is more like a living creature with an appetite, one that can grow and change itself with proper nourishment and exercise."
Karansky is the ideal candidate for the program, Doidge observes. He is a man of many interests – history, languages, astronomy, rocks. Two heart attacks have not slowed his search for something new to do, and once he finds it, he turns his full attention to it. This is key. Concentration is the necessary condition for plastic change.
Doidge writes that although it remains to be proven, mentally stimulating activities and physical exercise may also help stave off dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Again, not all activities are equal. Those that involve genuine concentration – playing board games, studying a musical instrument, reading and dancing – are associated with a lower risk for dementia.
Most importantly, Doidge stresses learning new things and doing what you love keeps you happy and healthy in old age. As Dr. George Vaillant, head of the Harvard Study of Adult Development writes, "Older people often develop new skills and are often wiser and more socially adept than they were as younger adults. They are less prone to depression than younger people and usually do not suffer from incapacitating disease until they get their final illness."