The Brain That Changes Itself

August 1, 2007
Ronald W. Pies, MD
Volume 24, Issue 8

Book review


New York: Viking Books, 2007
448 pages $24.95 (hardcover)

Author: Norman Doidge

How much can the brain change, once it is injured or diseased? Can changing our minds also change our brains? These questions are the subject of a stimulating new book, The Brain That Changes Itself, by psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Norman Doidge, MD.

Having undertaken a series of travels and interviews-including talks with some of the world's top brain scientists-Dr Doidge explores the burgeoning area of "neuroplasticity." In effect, this is the property that allows the brain to change its very structure with each activity it performs. As Doidge puts it, "I spoke with people who had strokes decades before and had been declared incurable, who were helped to recover with neuroplastic treatments. . . . I saw people rewire their brains with their thoughts, to cure previously incurable obsessions and traumas."

The book includes 10 chapters covering topics as diverse as stroke, chronic pain, and "pornography addiction" and describes both the promise and the peril of neuroplasticity. On the one hand, the brain's uncanny ability to alter its own structure (given appropriate input) can lead to remarkably positive changes, for example, after brain damage that was once thought irreversible; on the other hand, Doidge argues, this same neuroplasticity may underlie deleterious changes in brain structure and function that may account for, say, pornography addiction.

Dr Doidge is a fine writer, and his book has a lucid and engaging style. The text is thoroughly referenced, and most of the scientific claims are well substantiated. The reader may find that some of the claims regarding "addiction" to pornography-eg, "porn viewers develop new maps in their brains"-are a bit speculative, but in general, I found Doidge's conclusions quite persuasive. His interviews with cutting-edge brain scientists, such as V. S. Ramachandran and Jeffrey M. Schwartz, are both engaging and informative. Readers interested in topics ranging from love, sexual attraction, and human culture to posttraumatic stress disorder-all considered from the standpoint of neuroplasticity-will find much to enjoy in this intriguing book.