Monday, December 01, 2008

Neuroplasticity: Growing public recognition greets Norman Doidge's new book

Friend Deborah Gyapong is looking forward to reading Norman Doidge's The Brain That Changes Itself:
Norman Doidge used to have a must-read column in the National Post, back in the days of Conrad Black's ownership. A man with a breadth of classical and medical education and a terrific writer to boot, he should be a treasured public intellectual. Today I was treated by a long op-ed by him in my Post. Sounds like his book The Brain That Changes Itself is something I must buy. And it sounds like a great companion to Denyse O'Leary and Dr. Mario Beauregard's The Spiritual Brain. I hope people pay attention to his findings, because they blast the mechanistic and materialist models that so many people think is scientific, when it fact cutting edge science has moved well beyond them.
Yes, it has, though some people haven't gotten the message yet. Here's a recent National Post piece (November 26, 2008), in which he discusses the fact that the brain is no longer seen as a machine:

... [formerly] the brain came to be seen as a complex machine with parts, each performing a single mental function, an idea with us today when we describe the brain as a kind of computer. This doctrine of the unchanging brain meant that many born with mental limitations, learning disabilities or certain psychiatric problems, or those who suffered brain damage or strokes, were seen, almost by definition, as condemned to live with them. Machines do many glorious things, but they don’t grow new parts, or reorganize themselves. This doctrine promoted a neurological nihilism that spread through our culture: At times it meant that human nature, which emerges from the brain, was seen as being equally rigid.

There were problems with hard-core localizationism from the beginning. As early as 1868 Jules Cotard had shown that children with a diseased left frontal lobe could speak quite well without it. This meant that Broca had only shown there was a tendency for speech to localize left, but it didn’t necessarily have to. Challenges to localization have been accelerating since. The winner of the Nobel Prize for 2000, psychiatrist Eric Kandel, showed that learning actually turns on our genes to make new proteins and create new connections in the brain’s circuits. The neuroscientist Michael Merzenich has shown that with repetition these circuits can become better at what they do and fire faster, more efficient signals. These findings have already been used to cure learning disorders and remedy a variety of psychiatric and neurological problems, treat strokes, raise IQs and preserve the ageing brain. We are not, it turns out, merely the galley slaves of our selfish-gene masters because conscious thought gives us a significant degree of control over their expression in our brains (and elsewhere), by moulding our microanatomy.

As Doidge points out, this change may help us get beyond false dilemmas. Consider, for example, the notion of that there is a "violence gene" or that "being a criminal is hardwired into So-and-So's brain." Obviously, for a variety of reasons, some are more prone to violence than others, but the "fatal gene" and the "hard wiring" are constructs of our imaginations that should not be cited in public policy proposals.

Herer's David Suzuki's CBC documentary on Doidge's book. An excerpt from the Introduction:

Known in scientific circles as "neuroplasticity," this radical new approach to the brain provides an incredible way to bring the human brain back to life. Some of the cases that we meet are:

Roger Behm, a blind man who is now able to see via his tongue (and can throw a basketball into a garbage can to prove it).

Cheryl Schiltz, who was written-off by doctors when she lost her sense of balance due to a drug's side effect. Once sentenced to a lifetime of wobbling, her brain rewired itself through a seemingly simple therapy, and has now regained her balance and returned to a normal life.

Michelle Mack, one of the greatest examples of the brain's ability to adapt: she was born, literally, with just half of her brain.

Michael Bernstein, who suffered a debilitating stroke in the prime of his life, paralyzing the left side of his body. He's now back to his former life, as his brain functions have been rerouted and re-invigorated.

The implications of this research, presented by Dr. Doidge through these compelling stories, are enormous. The impact is just beginning to be felt in research, medical and rehabilitation circles.

It is heartening and quite significant that neuroplasticity is gaining such broad recognition, along with the placebo effect and the effect of spirituality on health.

Here's a thought: One of the greatest medical triumphs of the mechanistic twentieth century was the eradication of smallpox in the wild. To that feat an understanding of patient mental states was irrelevant. However, advances of the twenty-first century cannot avoid considering issues like neuroplasticity and mental states.
Human longevity, after all, is altering health care. Simple "pill for every ill" solutions may have worked for the young Baby Boom - who were not usually very sick anyway - but will not help older midlife adults who must learn to manage chronic illnesses.

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