September 19, 2008
ABC News
Kerry O'Brien

Kerry O’Brien speaks with Norman Doidge, author of The Brain That Changes Itself.


KERRY O’BRIEN, PRESENTER: For all the breakthroughs in medical science that we’ve come to take for granted, unravelling the mysteries of the human brain is still very much a work in progress. But there’s a band of brilliant pioneers at the frontiers of brain science whose work demonstrates ways in which the brain can change itself with new treatments for a range of human ailments from stroke recovery to learning disabilities to mental illness to enhanced memory.

There’s one scientist who says his work demonstrates that we can radically improve how we learn, think, perceive and remember, even in old age, with specific brain exercises. It’s an area of neuroscience that New York psychiatrist Dr. Norman Doidge has dubbed “neuroplasticity”, and he’s documented a range of remarkable stories in a book called “The Brain that Changes Itself”. He’s in Australia for the Brisbane Writers’ Festival and I spoke with him in Melbourne today.

Norman Doidge, what is it about the plasticity of the brain that allows it to be rewired?

NORMAN DOIDGE, AUTHOR: Well, for the longest time, for 400 years, we thought of the brain as like a complex machine with parts. And our best and brightest neuroscientists really believed that. It was a mechanistic model of the brain and machines do many glorious things, but they don’t rewire themselves and they don’t grow new parts. And it turns out that that metaphor was actually just spectacularly wrong, and that the brain is not inanimate, it’s animate and it’s growing, it’s more plant like than machine like and it actually works by changing its structure and function as it goes along.

KERRY O’BRIEN: You’ve given a number of examples in your book about how this has been applied in adults with some quite astounding results. Instances where people are being treated for strokes, to recover, to help them recover from strokes. One illustration: the surgeon.

NORMAN DOIDGE: Yeah, I spoke to Michael Bernstein who was an eye surgeon, so he did microsurgery intervention inside an eye. He was a classical pianist and a tennis player and one day playing tennis, half of his body was completely rendered immovable. He had the usual amount of treatment which is about six weeks of rehabilitation, then sent home because the assumption was, you know, that’s the best you can do, the brain doesn’t grow or reorganise in any way. And, luckily, he was in Birmingham, Alabama where Edward Taub developed a therapy for strokes which basically does the following: the assumption is that when you have a stroke, you lose cells in your brain and you try to move the affected limb, it doesn’t work, so you learn it doesn’t work. You stop using it and you use your good limb. Taub had the ingenuity to put the good limb in a sling or cast so you can’t use it and then incrementally train the affected limb, and he was able to bring Dr Bernstein back to the point that he practices medicine. I spoke with Taub patients who’d had strokes 50 years before, and there were children there who had had cerebral palsy who were using this treatment and recovering their independence.

KERRY O’BRIEN: House Taub’s work been authenticated, has it gone through the rigorous testing process?

NORMAN DOIDGE: Oh, yeah. The thing about Taub is Mr Meticulous, and they’ve got very, very fine studies that show that it’s effective. And in fact, some of the other forms of rehab that we’ve been using for many years unfortunately are not that effective.

KERRY O’BRIEN: There’s the claim that we can radically improve how we learn, think, perceive and remember, even in old age. Is that proven?

NORMAN DOIDGE: Yes, it is proven. Michael Merzenich, who is perhaps the most important plasticity researcher alive, and who persuaded most scientific sceptics that the brain is plastic, has developed programs both for children with learning disabilities, severe reading problems and for people in their old age which can do things like turn the memory clock back somewhere between 10 and 25 years. I spoke to a gentleman Stanley Karanski, who was 90-years-old, who did the program and in six weeks he found that his trouble recognising and remembering names and faces, his trouble being alert, his trouble driving, all reversed itself, and they have very fine studies showing that this is possible in large groups of people. And what we do is we go in and we actually rebuild the various parts of the brain up from scratch, just the way you sort of learn, for instance, how to distinguish sounds as a baby; we do this now with the adult. We give – sort of retune the auditory cortex so that it registers sounds in a very crisp way. And so when you meet someone at a party, it’s very, very sharp, powerful signals that your brain’s discharging.

KERRY O’BRIEN: There’s the claim that brain exercises may help treat schizophrenia.

NORMAN DOIDGE: There have been studies done in California by Merzenich and his crew which show that people who do these brain exercises get many of the benefits that they do with medications. I’m not suggesting – no one’s suggesting that medications simply are replaced by brain exercises. But at this point, we’re seeing that there are a lot of things that can be helped, including some pretty serious mental illnesses.

KERRY O’BRIEN: You write that humans instinctively were on the right track in the age of rote learning in education and you cite Abraham Lincoln’s skill as an orator as an example. Can you elaborate?

NORMAN DOIDGE: Sure. In the ’60s, there were things that were part of a kind of classical education that people did away with ’cause they thought that they were irrelevant like an almost fanatical attention to elocution and handwriting, or memorising long poems. But, it now turns out that what these activities did is they exercised very important parts of the brain that allow you to think in long sentences, have deep internal monologues and a certain amount of grace in all kinds of expression. And probably a lot of damage was done by doing away with these exercises that were there for good reasons we didn’t understand.

KERRY O’BRIEN: You mean that they have reduced the scope of the functions of a child’s brain as they grow to adulthood?

NORMAN DOIDGE: Yeah. The simplest example would be memory of long verses of poetry. It allows you to speak in public and have long, deep paragraphs of thought in private. When you reduce the amount of memory in those processors, we’re reduced to a world of sound bites.

KERRY O’BRIEN: So, somebody else might say, well, you know, the kind of oratory of a Lincoln is simply a lost art. You would add to that; you would say it’s a lost art …

NORMAN DOIDGE: That can be recovered.

KERRY O’BRIEN: … but a lost art that was lost in the way we learnt, which you connect to the plasticity of the brain.

NORMAN DOIDGE: Most definitely.

KERRY O’BRIEN: Does mainstream science take it as seriously as it should?

NORMAN DOIDGE: I would say that mainstream neuroscience is now smitten with neuroplasticity as the new revolutionary paradigm that is giving us great insights in the levels of activity that are going on in the brain. And an example of it is just the following amazing fact: that when you think thoughts or learn something, you actually turn on genes inside the nerve cells in your brain to change the number of connections between those cells. You can double them in a matter of hours between nerve cell A and nerve cell B. So, what we’ve discovered with neuroplasticity is that consciousness can direct genetic expression, and neuroscientists are looking at all the sort of points along that trail from consciousness, ultimately to structural change in the brain and altered behavioural expression as one of the chief tasks right now.

KERRY O’BRIEN: You get the sense that there is a vast application that could be applied across a whole range of areas that aren’t being tapped. What is the potential?

NORMAN DOIDGE: It’s extraordinary. The brain’s the command centre of the human being, and every human activity emerges from the brain. And when we have a radical paradigm shift in understanding of the brain, every human activity is affected: education, all kinds of learning, and all kinds of medicine, neurology, and psychiatry. But, any kind of training, learning to play a musical instrument, the military, sports, our understanding of the humanities, and, especially our understanding of culture, all has to be re-examined.

KERRY O’BRIEN: Have you tried to exploit your knowledge of neuroplasticity to your own benefit?

NORMAN DOIDGE: Sure. One of the easiest changes to make is the change in attitude. Once you understand that plasticity exists from cradle to grave, what it means is that a development, which most people think of as, really, child development, is something that goes on throughout the course of life. So, my own attitude towards my patients when they have issues of difficulty has changed, ’cause I know that brain change is possible, and my attitude towards myself has changed, and I do some exercises myself.

KERRY O’BRIEN: What sort of exercises?

NORMAN DOIDGE: Well, I do these brain exercises for language.


NORMAN DOIDGE: Pleasant. They’re well-designed, so you get – you’re motivated as you go along. But it’s like any kind of working out: it takes time to be – you put aside the time, but you get into it after you start.

KERRY O’BRIEN: So, if a person has the motivation, we could see a point where these – where a range of brain exercises could become quite commonplace to help prepare you even for old age, amongst other things.

NORMAN DOIDGE: Prepare you and maintain you. It seems to me just common sense that just as a person would want to do cardiovascular training in their 50s, 60s and 70s, that you’d want to do some brain training as part of it, especially when the studies are showing that you can really turn the memory clock back so significantly.

KERRY O’BRIEN: Norman Doidge, thanks very much for talking with us.

NORMAN DOIDGE: Thank you very much.

KERRY O’BRIEN: Some of us might need more maintenance than others.