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.”

Hazaah!

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.