The Brain’s Way of Healing is a new book by Norman Doidge that focuses on the implications of a new are of neuroscience called neuroplasticity. For centuries the human brain was thought to be a fairly fixed and unregenerative organ that, if injured or diseased, is subject to only very limited recovery. Neuroplasticity has developed from a growing understanding that the human brain is in fact capable of much more significant self-repair and healing. Not only that, but much of the healing–for conditions that range from Parkinson’s disease, to autism, to stroke, to traumatic head injury–can be stimulated by conscious habits of thought and action, by teaching the brain to essentially “rewire itself.”
Norman Doidge is a distinguished scientist, a medical doctor, and a psychiatrist on the faculty of both the University of Toronto and of Columbia University in New York. Doidge’s first book, The Brain That Changes Itself, published seven years ago, described how the principle of such healing was becoming established fact in the laboratory through a greater understanding of ways in which circuits of neurons functioned and were created by thought. “Equipped,” he wrote, “for the first time, with the tools to observe the living brain’s microscopic activities, neuroplasticians showed that the brain changes as it works. In 2000, the Nobel prize for medicine was awarded for demonstrating that, as learning occurs, the connections among nerve cells increase. The scientist behind that discovery, Eric Kandel, also showed that learning can ‘switch on’ genes that change neural structure. Hundreds of studies went on to demonstrate that mental activity is not only the product of the brain but the shaper of it.”
Doidge’s new book takes those findings to the next logical stage. He provides numerous examples of cures and recoveries that illustrate this shift in thinking. For instance, he details how a man in chronic pain from a crippling neck injury, himself a doctor, methodically teaches his brain to block out pain using visualization techniques. This forced those brain areas that felt pain to process anything but pain and thus weakened the brain circuits that reinforced his chronic pain. The practice became second nature and then curative. The doctor, Michael Moskowitz, now runs a revolutionary pain clinic helping those with conditions no amount of pain medication can touch.
Doidge takes the principle of stimulating unused circuits of the brain and making them fit for other purposes, into analyses of new therapies for stroke and MS patients, as well as children with learning disorders, attention deficit and even autism. He cites the case of David Webber, who through deep meditation and tiny hand-eye exercises over a period of years has confounded his doctors and cured himself of blindness caused by an autoimmune disease called uveitis. Again, Webber’s methods, based on relaxation and a reorientation of certain cognitive functions, are being used to measurable effect to treat conditions including double vision, lazy eye syndrome and other autoimmune eye disorders.
In all of this he is careful to stress that the science behind neuroplasticity is still in a nascent state, and that just because the methods work for some patients, they may not work for all. Even so, Doidge sees the potential of a whole new medical practice as the ideas develop, which will require the active involvement of the whole patient in his or her own care. This includes mind, brain and body, as well as a health profession that focuses not only on the patient’s deficits but also searches for healthy brain areas that may be dormant and for existing capacities that may aid recovery.