Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to change in response to various kinds of injury, external stimuli, and therapy. For instance, when one studies piano, the neurons in the parts of the brain that govern sound and manual dexterity multiply to support the needed skills. Sometimes stroke victims can regain use of paralyzed limbs through physical exercises that stimulate growth in portions of the brain that “take over” for damaged areas. In The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science (Viking Adult, 2007), Norman Doidge studies neuroplasticity. He describes the cases of some of his own patients and reports on the careers of scientists involved in neurological research. The result is a history of neurology and of brain theory, explanations of the physiology and anatomy of the brain, and a series of case studies that show how various therapies have helped stroke victims, people suffering from phobias and OCD, forms of addiction, and other mental or behavioral issues, to recover from and cope with their problems. Such therapies can be used to treat learning disabilities and to keep the brains of aging people vital. Doidge argues that psychoanalysis sometimes works because it compels patients to think and act in ways that change their brain structure.
For years traditional science held that the brain is hardwired. That is, certain portions of the brain control certain functions--Broca’s area controls speech, while other areas control facial gestures or mobility. If these areas are damaged, according to traditional thought, then the abilities they support are permanently affected or lost. Neuroplasticity has overturned this notion. Also overturned is the idea that neuroplasticity affects only the young—that in older people the brain loses its plasticity. In fact, while the brains of the young are the most pliable in their ability to change and rewire, the brains of older people, including people in their 70s and 80s, can still show plastic properties.
This was an encouraging book for me, a person who, at the age of 60, worries about the loss of cognitive ability that can affect older people. There are physical and mental activities, exercises and therapies, Doidge suggests, that can stave off the inevitable mental decline.
The social implications of neuroplasticity, of therapies that can treat mental disorders and restore function to stroke and accident victims, that can, conceivably, be used for behavior modification both on an individual and wider scale, are complex. The possible use of brain modification therapy for social programming should receive serious and wary attention. We’ve heard about groups that claim to “deprogram” cult members and homosexuals, for example. Should people who exhibit behaviors regarded by some as unacceptable be compelled to undergo modification therapy? Social programmers or governments could use similar methods to modify the behavior of entire populations. Doidge hints at these implications but doesn’t explore them fully. Some other writer should do that. As a psychiatrist, Doidge’s main interest lies in understanding how the plastic nature of the brain can lead to effective treatment of physical and psychological problems of patients.