The Brain that Changes Itself

I read a book of pop neurology this week, The Brain that Changes Itself (Norman Doldge, 2007), and was quite impressed. Dr Doldge’s writing is similar to Malcom Gladwell, (Blink and Outliers), as well as Oliver Sacks (The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Musicophilia; his endorsement is on the book) in his talent for capturing individual narratives, weaving them together, and combining them with research to show clearly why he is arguing what he is, and at the same time to illustrate what he means. His accounts of studies and patients are wonderfully concrete, consistently entertaining, and seems to be well researched. Just as importantly, he actually has an entire book’s worth of material to communicate perhaps is my chief complaint against most popular non-fiction I’ve read recently is that they’ve taken what could have been a really fine 10-30 p essay or series of essays and padded it into a 200 p book (or, if they happen to be evangelical, an entire series of educational materials and events, reminiscent of those “grow your own yeti” toys that expand to 200x their original size when you soak them in water), introducing all manner of nonsense in the process. I also appreciate that it doesn’t try to be a self-help book. Doldge knows a good deal about neuro-science, and about interesting cases, studies, and ideas associated with that; he doesn’t pretend to know the motives of his readers in reading his book and makes no attempt to manipulate those motives, which is refreshing.

Although they are, in some ways, dealing with much of the same material, I’m not sure how The Brain that Changes Itself might be related to The Introvert Advantage, because they take such different perspectives. Laney’s perspective is oriented toward innate preferences, and Doldge’s toward “nueroplasticity” (the ability of the brain to change, creating or severely altering neural connections in response to changes in input, attention, or damage). Their questions are fundamentally different, because Laney wonders how we might best operate within our innate preferences, whereas Doldge would first reframe “preference” to be about the most complex and efficient neural networks, and then wonder what happens when the ordinary paths of those networks are somehow blocked — in essence working around or against those preferences, which will, with repetition, alter them. For instance, Laney reminds us that some of us tend to use one hemisphere more than the other, and more than other people, and then suggests various strengths and misunderstandings that can result from this. Doldge finds someone who was born with only her right hemisphere, and discovers that her one hemisphere has altered to do all the most important operations of both: she can speak, read, write, calculate, and use the right side of her body (which is a good deal weaker than her left), all of which are considered “left brain” functions, and has an excellent memory. On the other hand, she is very bad at abstraction and spacial reasoning, which are “right brain” function, because there wasn’t enough space in only one hemisphere to do everything equally well. She has, in her right hemisphere, a kind of compromise between the functions of both, with more emphasis on the traditionally “left brined” functions, because those were needed sooner (as a baby she was nearly paralyzed on her right side and blind while her body adjusted to her condition ,but improved significantly). Doldge also talks about stroke patients and soldiers with head wounds who’s brains re-organized, with varying levels of success. Research has also found that, among those without brain damage, the primary functions of the hemispheres are switched in about 5% of right handed and 15% of left handed people (another 15% process bi-laterally), who function normally.

Mostly I think this means that using terms like “right brained” and “left brained” aren’t necessarily more accurate than “concrete thinker,” abstract thinker,” and so on. They may even be less accurate, because there are a lot more occasions for caring how someone tends to process information than for caring which part of the brain he or she processes it in.

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