Dr Norman Doidge has travelled the world meeting people who have healed themselves using neuroplasticity—the brain’s ability to change in response to stimuli and experience. He told Lynne Malcolm how the concept may change the way we treat everything from ADD to Parkinson’s.
Scientists now know that the brain has an amazing ability to change and heal itself in response to mental experience. This phenomenon, known as neuroplasticity, is considered to be one of the most important developments in modern science for our understanding of the brain.
The brain is not fixed and unchangeable, as was once thought, but can create new neural pathways to adapt to its needs. This has led to an explosion of interest in the power of brain training to improve our focus, memory attention and performance.
Dr Norman Doidge, A psychiatrist and researcher from the University of Toronto in Canada, put neuroplasticity in the spotlight in 2007 when he released his bestseller The Brain That Changes Itself.
The thing that is so beautiful about this is it’s something that anyone has access to.DR NORMAN DOIGE
Since then he’s explored the powerful therapeutic potential of neuroplasticity and demonstrated that the brain has its own unique way of healing .
His latest book, The Brain’s Way of Healing: Remarkable Discoveries and Recoveries From the Frontiers of Neuroplasticity, tells the stories of patients benefiting from neuroplasticity, healing their brains without medication or surgery.
In conditions such as multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, autism and attention deficit disorder, the brain’s general neuronal and cellular health goes awry.
The problems may be the result of inflammation, toxicity or genetically induced celluar abnormalities. Circuits may die, become dormant or begin firing at irregular rates. Doidge calls this a ‘noisy brain’.
‘Think of people with traumatic brain injury,’ he says. ‘There are certain things they can’t do anymore, and that’s because circuits are dormant, but there are other circuits that seem to be hyperactive.
‘They are very, very sensitive to sounds and light and so on: that all has to be rebalanced. Then the brain goes through a period of rest and then it goes through learning.’
Related: Changing your brain
In The Brain’s Way of Healing, Doidge describes interventions that are non-invasive and use the senses or movement of the body to access the brain.
Doidge tells the story of John Pepper, who has Parkinson’s. The disease is a result of damage to the dopamine-producing cells in the brain that help us make automatic movements. This damage leads to difficulties with movement, balance and walking.
Pepper wasn’t responding to conventional medication, but began to pay very close attention to the individual movements involved in walking when he joined his wife in a get-fit program.
‘What he found was that he could do movements with that level of awareness, by breaking it down, because that’s not broken in the Parkinson’s brain,’ says Doidge. ‘He was actually using another part of his brain, in the frontal lobes, to work around the Parkinson’s.’
Pepper was conscientious with his walking exercises and saw remarkable improvement in his Parkinson’s symptoms.
He was using activity, thought and movement to stimulate dormant circuitry in his brain, which found other ways to overcome the problem.
‘The thing that is so beautiful about this is it’s something that anyone has access to,’ says Doidge.
It also highlights how valuable movement—even the very simple act of walking—can be for the body and the brain. Doidge cites a recent large study by the Cochrane Institute in Wales which showed that five activities—exercise, not smoking, not drinking more than a glass of wine a day, eating four servings of fruit and vegetables daily and being a normal weight—reduce the risk of developing dementia by a staggering 60 per cent.
‘Now, if any drug did that it would be the most talked about drug in the world probably, and the most powerful factor was exercise,’ says Doidge.
Related: The music in your brain
The author also learned several things about pain and neuroplasticity while writing the book.
There are two kinds of pain: acute pain—a warning not to move a body part because you could cause further damage to it—and chronic pain.
Acute pain is necessary, but because the brain and nervous system are neuroplastic, the pain system itself can be injured by stimulation. Even a small movement of an injured body part can lead to pain that spreads through the body and lasts a long time.
Doidge tells the story of pain physician and psychiatrist Michael Moskowitz, who experienced disabling and chronic pain after a series of accidents.
Moskowitz read up on the scientific literature on plasticity. He found that there are about a dozen regions in the brain that process pain, and that almost all of them do other things.
You may have noticed that when you are in pain you get cranky; that’s because one of the areas of the brain that processes pain also processes emotional regulation.
Another such region processes both pain and the ability to visualise; brain scans show that chronic pain hijacks about 15 per cent of visual processing.
Moskowitz’s solution was to force himself to visualise whenever he was in pain. The idea was to reconquer that area of the brain for imagery—what Doidge describes as the ‘use it or lose it’ nature of plasticity..
‘After several weeks he started to get some results, and by several months he could go 15, 20 minutes without pain,’ says Doidge. ‘At the end of the year he had no pain. He beat back his chronic pain with this neuroplastic mental intervention.’
Many of the stories of healing Doidge tells sound almost miraculous, but he is quick to point out that they are examples from the frontiers of neuroplastic research. This is not a belief-based phenomenon, he says, nor is it due to the placebo effect. It’s about training up new brain circuitry.
‘You don’t have to believe this, you just have to be willing to do it,’ he says.
‘I really wish people would look into these things before they declared that just because they don’t fit with the existing paradigm, that they are not possible.
‘I think the scientific attitude is a systematic mature scepticism, which is sceptical of itself as well. If it encounters something that it hasn’t met before, the idea is not to roll your eyes away from it and not look at it, but to actually look at it more intensively.’
An exploration of all things mental, All in the Mind is about the brain and behaviour, and the fascinating connections between them.