Books that Changed my Life: The Brain That Changes Itself

The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science by Norman Doidge, MD is about neuroplasticity. Neuro for neuron and plastic for changeable, malleable, modifiable. The basic premise is that brains are not static the way that scientists have for century’s assumed. They are instead capable of amazing changes through a process of re-wiring. The rewiring is constant and can be a benefit or a hindrance to the person using the brain.

One story at the beginning was about a woman who had taken antibiotics that had destroyed her inner ear. She felt as if she were in an airplane without a seat belt. The walls were moving and she could barely seem to make her limbs move. The doctor who prescribed the antibiotics had known that this complication could happen if she was on the drug for too long. When he realized what had happened he sounded particularly unconcerned when he told her that this new scary unbalanced way that her body felt was permanent. Balance is very important. She couldn’t read, walk or even sleep. The story starts five years later when she has lost her job and is completely reliant on disability. She has gone to Paul Bach-y-Rita who has created a proto type machine to help. It is a small thin plastic strip covered with electrodes that goes on her tongue. The strip is connected to a hat with an accelerometer in it. The accelerometer will do the work that her inner ear has stopped doing and hopefully will convey the information her brain needs through the apparatus on her tongue.

It works. The hat makes it so she can stand without toppling. I cried along with her. It was amazing. Her brain could interpret the data on her tongue as the missing information from her inner ear. The more amazing thing was that after she took off the hat, her sense of balance remained for a short time. With repeated use of the hat, her brain was able to extend the residual balance time. From 20seconds, to three hours. After four months she no longer needs the machine. She re-trained her brain and fixed something that her doctor had told her was permanent.

There are other amazing stories. About a man learning to walk after a stroke, or about blind people using similar prototype technology to ‘see’ a room and describe it to researchers. There are also some very sad stories about how pornography obsessions, or pain can use the exact same re-wiring pathways to ruin people’s lives.

When I read the book they mention how a small section of brain connects the right half of the brain to the left half of the brain. This connection is small and so if it’s not strong it can be difficult for a person to access facts. I have always had trouble with this kind of thing. Names places and dates were impossible for me to remember. So when I read that reading analog clocks can strengthen this area I created flash cards of them to see if I could help myself access my brain better. I used my flash cards for about five minutes a day for a few months and after that five minutes every few months.

It worked. I would not say that I have a great memory but it defiantly helped make my memory better. I can remember the titles of the movies that I’m trying to remember and the actor that was in it. I remember peoples names and can figure out when things happened. It also helped with adding and subtracting in my head. Every once in a while I take a few minutes out and do a set with my flash cards. Just to stay in shape.

I highly recommend this book. It has so much information and is worth reading more than once.

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