Tag Archives: Norman Doidge

Learning & the Brain – Norman Doidge (neuroplasticity)

If you read Doidge’s book, The Brain that Changes Itself, then you didn’t need to be at the Learning & the Brain conference session. And if you were at the session, then you should still read the book because Doidge shares intriguing stories and, in my opinion, is a far more captivating writer than he is a presenter.

Having blogged extensively about the people and issues described in Doidge’s book, rather than recoup it all again, I refer you to the tag cloud for a look at my past posts. If you are not a regular reader of this blog, my recommendation is to begin with the earliest post, which describes Plasticity and will be at the bottom of the page.

You will discover in your reading of either the book or my posts that “brain plasticity occurs in response to the environment, the task at hand, and our thoughts and imaginings”.

And what took so long for plasticity to be acknowledged? Doidge says it is partially due to how the brain has been considered throughout history, which has been from a combination of natural and mechanical perspectives; to a lack of technology for adequately seeing changes as they happen in the brain; to poor prognosis, in the past, of those with brain dysfunctions, coupled with insufficient clinical evidence of recovery; and to the “plastic paradox” (see the third from last paragraph), whereby plasticity leads to rigidity, and therefore plasticity masks itself.

Doidge has done an admirable job of compiling in one place results of related research and development, and chronicling tales of perseverance. If you weren’t already in awe of your amazing brain, you will be after reading his book.

Learning & the Brain conference – 1 week to go!

Back in February I expressed my delight at hearing the news that my grant proposal for funding attendance at April’s Learning & the Brain conference was approved. Well, the conference begins next weekend!

Also sometime in February, I began email correspondence with a graduate student/teacher who has similar interests to mine. (Ah, the benefits of blogging; that is how we met.) We’ve emailed about books, grad school, Smart Boards, and the April Brain conference. And now we have plans to meet in person at the conference.

And then, there are the books. Reaching the last chapter in my current book, How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work: Seven Languages for Transformation by Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey, I realized that I had read the books by the opening and closing (Kegan) keynote speakers of the upcoming Brain conference. This seems rather fitting, though at the time of reading Norman Doidge’s book I did not know he was the opening speaker for the conference.

Imagination: Norman Doidge & Others

Norman Doidge writes, in The Brain That Changes Itself, “experiments have shown that we can change our brain anatomy simply by using our imaginations.” Using various methods for scanning the brain, researchers have discovered that “from a neuroscientific point of view, imagining an act and doing it are not as different as they sound.

Doidge discusses the topic of imagination in detail in chapter eight, and presents tantalizing evidence, based upon experiments, that “imagination and action are” integrated, “despite the fact that we tend to think of imagination and action as completely different and subject to different rules.” And he goes even further, stating “But consider this: in some cases, the faster you can imagine something, the faster you can do it.” This reminds me hugely of the process of visualization.

Karin Wells, of CBC Radio Canada, did an interview with Norman Doidge. You can read more about the interview, and even listen to it, on the Feldenkrais Manitoba blog in Feldenkrais ahead of his time: CBC Radio on Rebuilding the Brain. In the blog, Feldenkrais is quoted as writing that “…[Learning] is also the foundation of imagination…

In discussing what he is doing to stave off cognitive decline, Doidge leaves us with this message about new learning:

It’s really important to do something you enjoy, that you’ve always wanted to do….because….you turn on the same neurochemical system, the dopamine system, which both gives you the thrill of completing the goal and consolidates that network that led you to the goal. So it’s much better to do something that’s fun; fun and a challenge.

There is so much yet to understand about imagination. Take, for instance, the following two short films. In the first, author Neil Gaiman tries to answer a question from the audience about his imagination. The second is a Japanese commercial on children’s imagination.

Above: Neil Gaiman and His Imagination (4/13/08 – Just watched the 2007 movie Stardust, based upon Gaiman’s novel. If you are not familiar with his writing, this is a delightful display of his imagination. He also wrote the English translation of Princess Mononoke.)

Above: A Japanese commerical on children’s imagination

Learning & the Brain Conference, April 2008

Yesss! My grant application for full funding to attend April’s Learning & the Brain conference in Cambridge, Massachusetts was approved. Twice I have attended pre-conference workshops, but never the entire conference. This conference’s theme is Rewiring the Brain: Using Brain Plasticity to Enhance Learning & Help Overcome Learning Disorders. Given my recent posts about plasticity, you can imagine my excitement upon discovering that one of the opening keynote talks will be given by none other than Norman Doidge, author of The Brain That Changes Itself.

Another reason for my excitement is the Adult Brains – Learning & Training strand that will be running through a large number of the presentations, in addition to six sessions exclusively about this area. I have written innumerable posts about adult learning, and professional development, and am eager to attend as many of the related sessions as possible.

What a nice treat to find out in mid-winter. :-)

Plasticity: The Final Four

I am NOT referring to the NCCA’s final four games of the men’s college basketball championships, the opening rounds of which begin in March and are often referred to as March Madness! I AM referring to the final four chapters of Norman Doidge’s book, The Brain That Changes Itself. These chapters are jam packed with science and philosophy.

An entire chapter is devoted to imagination and its role in shaping our brains. Perhaps you are familiar with the act of visualization as a means for improving in sports. Feel free to check your knowledge of this built-in brain tool with ChannelOne’s Head Game or read this New York Times article, FITNESS; Visualization: Does It Provide an Edge? As Doidge has written, it turns out “Brain scans show that in action and imagination many of the same parts of the brain are activated. That is why visualizing can improve performance.”

The topic of memory takes up another chapter, which is infused with references to Freud. Written clearly, it provides an excellent discussion of his theories, in particular transference and dreams, which equate to a “plastic view of memory.”

Rejuvenation is a word that always conjures up a positive image. Just take in this definition of “the phenomenon of vitality and freshness being restored” and how can you go wrong! Renew, refresh, repair… A stem cell is a cell that can make exact copies of itself. The brain has neuronal stem cells, so called because they can specialize as either neurons or glial cells. Doidge describes seeing these cells through a highly detailed microscope, and what he has to say about them is refreshing: “…stem cells don’t have to specialize but can continue to divide, producing exact replicas of themselves, and they can go on doing this endlessly without any signs of aging. … This rejuvenating process is called neurogenesis,” and it goes on until the day that we die.” The simple-sounding keys to promoting neurogenesis include novelty, physical exercise, and learning (something new). Heck, that gives license to do all sorts of interesting things as we age, possibly making the latter portion of aging more fun than the first portion ;-)

Doidge’s last chapter introduces Betty Edwards and her book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. This is near and dear because in the summer of 2005 I took the one week Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain workshop taught by her son, Brain Bommeisler, in New York City. I am rather proud of my accomplishments, and invite you to see for yourself that it is possible to (re)learn to draw, which translates to learning something new later in life, which translates to brain plasticity.

Given how many entries I have posted about Doidge’s book, it will not surprise you to know that I found the content stimulating, refreshing, and exciting. The possibilities for what there is yet to learn about our brains, and the ways in which we will uncover that information, are indeed exhilarating.

Plasticity and the Brain: Merzenich and Taub

Michael Merzenich blogs at On the Brain, where he never seems to mince words as he gets right down to the subject at hand. PositScience: The Science with Dr. Merzenich is a 9 minute video during which Merzenich talks about the development of the brain, brain change, and plasticity.

His current company, PositScience, is focused on how to maintain plasticity and encourage brain change and growth for aging adults, with the goal of improving memory. If you are interested, there are a number of YouTube videos about this, including interviews with neuroscientists and users of the PositScience program.

[October 11, 2008 update – in going through my files I found a May, 6, 2007 NY Times article about Merezenich and his company, entitled Muscular Metaphor, which provides background on the company.]

Merezenich is another one of the neuroscientists featured in Norman Doidge’s book, The Brain That Changes Itself, and may best be known for his work on developing the cochlear implant.

What interests me most, though, are the findings of his research.

‘You cannot have plasticity in isolation … it’s an absolute impossibility.’ His experiments have shown that if one brain system changes, those systems connected to it change as well. The same ‘plastic rules’ – use it or lose it, or neurons that fire together wire together – apply throughout. Different areas of the brain wouldn’t be able to function together if that weren’t the case.

Within the same chapter, Doidge explains the brain chemistry that takes place during learning and unlearning, both of which take place as a function of plasticity. As you learn something, the neurons involved in the learning fire together and thus wire together. This is facilitated in cells by LTP (long-term potentiation), which is the chemical process of strengthening the synaptic connections. When the brain is poised for unlearning, the opposite takes place due to LTD (long-term depression), where the synaptic connections are weakened and disconnected.

Another neuroscientist who brightens the pages of Doidge’s book is Edward Taub. His research and innovation in stroke treatment pioneered CI (constraint induced) therapy, which exploits the brain’s plasticity. You can listen to Taub explain his work in an interview on The Brain Science Podcast, where there are also a number of links and references posted.

Taub’s research supported Merzenich’s findings that “when a brain map is not used, the brain can reorganize itself so that another mental function takes over that processing space.” In addition, with specific application to stroke patients and anyone who had some form of brain damage, “Not only could the brain respond to damage by having single neurons grow new branches within their own small sectors, but, the experiment showed, reorganization could occur across very large sectors.”


Plasticity and Education: Barbara Arrowsmith

[UPDATE: CBC (Canadian Broadcast Corporation) broadcast Fixing My Brain, an interview with Barbara Arrowsmith, June 16, 2009. I found out about this piece thanks to a post by Jason Atwood at playthink, which took me back to a post I wrote for SharpBrains reviewing Doidge's book. A comment on that post included the link to the CBC piece. I love a good trail!]

Barbara Arrowsmith is another one of the amazing people who populate Norman Doidge’s book, The Brain That Changes Itself. Barbara was born with an asymmetrical brain, which means that one side of her brain functioned astonishingly well and the other side functioned retardedly. Even more amazing, though, is her perseverance, which led her to bust her chops and pursue college and graduate school, earning a degree in Education.

Arrowsmith’s keen interest in learning is based upon her own experience which, along with research that crossed her desk while a student, led her to develop methods for teaching students with learning disabilities. And this led to the creation, in 1980, of the Arrowsmith School located in Toronto, Canada. Barbara knew that it was possible to retrain the brain, for that is precisely what she had done for herself as she willed herself through school.

Here is a description of the Arrowsmith methodology from the school’s site:

The Arrowsmith Program is a program of intensive and graduated cognitive exercises that are designed to strengthen the underlying weak cognitive capacities that are the source of the learning disabilities. Each student’s program is based on a careful assessment to identify the specific learning difficulties.

I am a big fan of Mel Levine, a pediatrician, author, speaker, and founder of All Kinds of Minds. In my 26 years of teaching I have heard Levine speak three times, and later this week will be hearing him speak for a fourth time. In 2002 he published the book A Mind at a Time, which crystallized the work being done by All Kinds of Minds. Also in 2002, PBS (Public Broadcasting System) partnered with All Kinds of Minds to create the broadcast Misunderstood Minds, which focused on learning issues related to attention, reading, writing and mathematics.

When reading Doidge’s chapter about Barbara Arrowsmith, I couldn’t help but wonder what Mel Levine would make of her approach. Arrowsmith’s system seems to be a head-on assault of an individual’s learning difficulties by using intensive practice to retrain those parts of the brain that cause the difficulty. Levine, on the other hand, attacks learning difficulties by utilizing the individual’s strengths to tackle specific difficulties. It is not an issue of “fixing” the problem, but rather of finding ways around the problem. Arrowsmith and Levine have the same goal, to make it possible for the individual to learn, but different methods for getting there.

Plasticity and The Senses: Paul Bach-y-Rita

This October 2012 update reflects new links for the videos, as PBS is no longer hosting Wired Science programs.
In December 2007 the PBS Wired Science show included a piece about Bach-y-Rita’s research: Mixed Feelings. Here are some additional videos covering some of the same content: BrainPort Vision Through Tongue, BrainPort Balance Device.


The first time I heard of Paul Bach-y-Rita was on a public television broadcast of a special show about the brain. The story of Paul Bach-y-Rita fills the first chapter of Norman Doidge’s book, The Brain That Changes Itself.

The stories of Bach-y-Rita – how his father recovered from a stroke and the impact this had on Bach-y-Rita’s career, the people with severe balancing issues who were essentially cured by his discoveries and innovations, and the people who had no vision who were able to begin to see – are compelling in and of themselves. They are very human stories, derived from the work of a man who was altruistically motivated.

A major contribution of Paul Bach-y-Rita’s to neuroscience was in thinking of the brain as “polysensory”, meaning that the sensory areas of the brain, rather than only processing information from just the senses that normally report to those areas, are actually able to process information from any of the senses. The stories referenced above, relating to balance and vision, rely heavily on the polysensory ability of the brain to take input from the tongue and route it to the areas of the brain dealing with balance or vision.

Amazing? Absolutely! His work is a reminder of how adaptable our brains are, and makes me wonder how many more hidden secrets are waiting to be revealed. You can read more about the science behind Bach-y-Rita’s efforts in these articles:

On Wisconsin Magazine: Balancing Act (Spring 2007)

Discover Magazine: Can You See With Your Tongue? (June 2003)

Discover Magazine: Artifical Sight (August 2001)

College of Engineering, University of Wisconsin-Madison: Tongue seen as portal to the brain (2001)

And on an unrelated note, F, Happy Birthday tomorrow!

Plasticity and Localization

hardcoverdoidge.jpgIt is New Year’s Eve and I have just completed reading Norman Doidge’s The Brain That Changes Itself – Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science. I read the paperback version, but at the end of his book Doidge notes that the cover of the hardcover “captures, in a single image, what this book is about and even the mood I hope the book creates.” Much in this book intrigued me – there were fascinating ideas to ponder, and brain science to digest. The first seven chapters held me captive for their personal stories; the final four chapters for the science and philosophy.

To have a comfortable grasp of the ideas, be able to discuss them and maybe even remember them, I need to “play” with the ideas, so you know what that means in terms of upcoming blog posts. Especially if anyone has read the book, I hope you will chime in with comments.

Since the book is mainly about plasticity, let’s see if I can explain what that means. Plasticity is not just the brain’s ability to change, for that is what happens all the time when we learn.

Let’s take a look at an old theory of the brain called localization. For many years, it was thought that each area of the brain had its own responsibilities. In fact, my early posts are all about the various parts of the brain, including descriptions of what each area tends to control and monitor. Until the idea of brain plasticity took off, it was thought that specific areas of the brain were responsible for specific functions, in other words, certain functions were localized or hardwired to certain brain areas. If something is hardwired then it is fixed and not capable of change.

The telling words above are “tends to”, because while certain areas of the brain tend to be responsible for specific functions, since the brain is plastic, areas overlap and even can co-opt one another’s functions. Initial maps drawn of our mental system turn out to be not as static as originally thought. If one pathway gets blocked, the brain is very good at finding alternative pathways.

As with any pathway, the more a particular path is used, the more ingrained it becomes, and pathways near one another become associated with each other. If a path is underutilized, over time it will be co-opted by other pathways that are branching out and need more space.

This concept of brain plasticity can be summed up in a few succinct statements revolving around the brain’s ability to reorganize itself, all from chapter 3, Redesigning the Brain:

Neurons that fire together wire together.

Neurons that wire apart fire apart.
This is also stated as Neurons out of sync fail to link.

Use it or lose it.

These statements will become that much more clear in upcoming posts. Meanwhile, here is more information about brain mapping and the idea of localization.

~ Neuroscience for Kids – Functional Divisions

~ Brain Maps: The Study of Brain Function in the Nineteenth Century

~ serendip: Mind, Brain, and Adaptation: the Localizaton of Cerebral Function
The serendip site is a most interesting place to visit and explore. There are a number of simulations and experiments designed to get you thinking!

Campbell Interview with Norman Doidge

The Brain Science Podcast and Blog with Ginger Campbell seeks to keep readers apprised of current happenings in the world of neuroscience. Ginger, who is an emergency room doctor in Alabama, demystifies the brain through interviews and book reviews. I discovered her site while researching Norman Doidge, and spent an enjoyable hour listening to Podcast 26, a recent interview she did with him about neuroplasticity.

Doidge touches on a number of fascinating people and topics, including names from the past such as Galileo, William Harvey, Descartes, and Sigmund Freud, and names from the not-so-distant past Donald Hebb, Erick Kandel, Edward Taub, Paul Bach-y-Rita, and VS Ramachandran. (These links are for me as much as for you! They provide a mini-course about philosophy and the brain, and I plan to dive in with gusto. Good thing our two-week school vacation has begun ;-)).

Their conversation covers some history of how the brain has been studied, beginning with the idea of the mind and brain being separate, and the initial thinking that the brain could not change; that it was hardwired. Doidge makes the point that it was always known that the mind could change, but not that the brain could change! (I can remember back to highly engaging high school and college philosophic discussions about what constitutes our brains and our minds. Are they the same? Is one a physical entity while the other is our mental self? How many times have you said ‘I’ve changed my mind!’ but have you ever said ‘I’ve changed my brain!’)

It turns out that back in the late 1880s Sigmund Freud was talking about neuroplasticity. He came up with a complex sounding description that can be boiled down to neurons that fire together wire together”. The idea is that when two events (neurons firing) occur in the brain at the same time, the events (neurons) become associated with one another, and the neuronal connections (wiring) become stronger.

While neuroplasticity manifests itself physically in stronger neuronal connections, here is Doidge’s definition of plasticity:

the brain can change its structure and its function depending on what it does. … depending on what we react to when we’re sensing and perceiving … depending on the actions we commit ourselves to … and depending on what we think and imagine.

I find this a phenomenal concept because it empowers us as human beings to be able to fix damaged areas of our brains, to continue to learn well into old age, and to alter our behavior and performance.

As the discussion continues, Doidge describes the hows and whys of the development of the study of neuroplasticity. He was intrigued by a particular component of neuroplasticity, what he describes as the “plastic paradox”, that “the plastic brain can give rise to both flexible and rigid (getting in ruts) behaviors.” He paints a vivid picture of sledding down a snowy hill. Since the snow starts out as pliable, you can start with just about any path. However, following the same sledding path over and over will create ruts (rigid behavior) that both makes the sledding easier and faster but also makes it more difficult to change the path.

Doidge and Campbell fill the second part of their interview with many of the stories that are in Doidge’s book. Each tale is inspirational in that the individuals are able to overcome substantial, life-altering events, such as illness and stroke, thanks to the research of visionary scientists and doctors who developed methods and tools to facilitate neuroplasticity.

I see plasticity and metacognition as closely entwined. This combination of knowing that intelligence is not fixed and you can change it, and knowing how you learn, is immensely positive and powerful, and has huge implications for students of any age. I translate this to students in school who struggle with learning issues, and aging adults who fear their brains will fade.