The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge, M.D. – Chapter 8 –“Imagination – How Thinking Makes It So”

In this chapter, Doidge introduces us to another eminent neuroscientist, Alvaro Pasqual-Leone. Pasqual-Leone, born in Valencia, Spain in 1961, is the Director of the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, part of the Harvard Medical School in Boston.

Pascual-Leone was the first to use Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation or TMS to map the brain. Further, he used the TMS to activate areas of the brain or to temporarily deactivate part of the brain to confirm the function of that part. Repeated activation has a therapeutic effect. TMS has been used to help severely depressed individuals.

In one piano experiment, Pascual-Leone demonstrated that individuals who “mentally practice” a piece can perform equally as well as those who “physically practice.”

Soviet political prisoner, Sharansky played mental chess for months, resulting in little to no brain loss that is common among prisoners. He later became a cabinet minister in Israel.

Doidge explains, “One reason we can change our brains simply by imagining is that, from a neuroscientific point of view, imagining and act and doing are not as different as they sound. When people close their eyes and visualize a simple object, such as the letter a, the primary visual cortex lights up, just as it would if the subjects were actually looking at the letter a. 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.” P. 203-204

In a similar experiment it was noted that “physical exercise” increased muscle strength by 30% while “imagined exercised” increased muscle strength by 22%.

Experiments with rats and monkeys also demonstrated that these animals could be trained to do tasks with their minds. This research can be used to help patients with muscular dystrophy, strokes and motor neuron disease.

Researchers further explored by blindfolding individuals. They found that within days of being blindfolded, the “visual” cortex began processing tactile (fingers) and auditory stimulation. After removing the blindfolds, the “visual” cortex stopped processing that stimulation within 24 hours.

Pascual-Leone asks and answers an interesting question: If our brains are so plastic how can we get stuck in rigid repetition? He uses Play-Doh to illustrate. After making one shape, then another with the same clay, one can return the clay to the first shape. Even though it is the same shape, it will not be identical. Our system is plastic, not elastic that would revert to its original state. This would further confirm that our brain is not as localized in function as previously thought. Pascual-Leone says, our brains are not truly organized in terms of systems that process a given sensory modality. Rather, our brain is organized in a series of specific operators.” P. 211

Doidge summarizes, “We have seen that imagining an act engages the same motor and sensory programs that are involved in doing it. We have viewed our imaginative life with a kind of sacred awe: as noble, pure, immaterial, and ethereal, cut off from our material brain. Now we cannot be so sure about where to draw the line between them.” P. 213

We can now see that Descartes and his model of the “mechanistic brain” slowed our understanding of the brain. P. 214 Indeed, we are fearfully and wonderfully made. (Psalm 139)

This research explains why assessing and training “visualization” skills so important in math and other areas, is an essential part of the neurodevelopmental evaluation and training.


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