The Brain That Changes Itself

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By: Arunima Kapoor

The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge elucidates a significant paradigm shift that took place in the field of neuroscience when neuroplasticity was first observed. As a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, Norman Doidge provides insight into the role of cognition in brain plasticity; he explores the underpinnings of neuroplasticity by drawing from the ideologies of scientists such as Luria and Freud and by highlighting the discoveries of others such as Merzenich. This book entails case studies of individuals who suffered from neurological disorders and mental illnesses, and were limited in their ability to function daily. For each case study, the author describes how the patient was able to overcome these impairments and rehabilitate through the power of neuroplasticity.

In one case study, Doidge recounts the story of a woman with vestibular apparatus damage who learns to regain her balance though rehabilitation, illustrating the adaptability of the sensory cortex. Similarly, another chapter delineates how phantom pain can be overcome in amputees through plasticity-based approaches. Throughout these examples, Doidge emphasizes how these findings brought about a shift from localizationism‒the idea that each part of the brain is specialized for a specific function‒to neuroplasticity. He weaves this concept throughout the chapters to illustrate the significance of this breakthrough.

Doidge does an excellent job of explaining complex scientific experiments in layman’s terms and finding the balance between technical jargon and oversimplification. Concepts are clearly defined and ideas are well developed and supported. However, the accuracy of some of the associations drawn in this book has been challenged. Carmeli and Blass1 believe that neuroplasticity has no relevance to psychoanalysis, and that the connections made between the two are misleading. They also argue that Doidge portrays basic principles of learning as neuroscientific discoveries, and misapplies the notion of neuroplasticity to the explanation of therapeutic processes.

While Doidge is able to engage a reader with his writing and defend his views through case study examples, whether or not his interpretation of neuroplasticity and its correlation with psychoanalysis is valid is unsettled. Overall, this book provides a great overview of a major, recent paradigm shift in neuroscience and highlights interesting case studies that depict remarkable recoveries. Despite the critical reviews of Doidge’s interpretation, this book is worth reading for the fascinating case studies, and to gain one perspective on the relationship between psychology and neuroscience.

  1. Carmeli Z, Blass R. The case against neuroplastic analysis: A further illustration of the irrelevance of neuroscience to psychoanalysis through a critique of Doidge’s The Brain that Changes Itself. Int. J. Psycho-anal. 2013; 94(2): 391-410.