Learning about the Brain: A Look Backward and A Look Forward

A Look Backward:

Recently, we completed our chapter by chapter review of The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge M.D. Since then I learned of this short video clip inspired by this book. Enjoy:


A Look Forward:

Now we will begin reviewing chapter by chapter, Brain Rules by Dr. John Medina.

In April, 2010 I was introduced to this book at a training session led by Dr. John Medina in Tacoma, Washington. He is a developmental molecular biologist and research consultant. Further, he is an affiliate Professor of bioengineering at the University of Washington school of Medicine and director of the Brain Center for Applied Learning Research at Seattle Pacific University in Seattle, Washington.

In the introduction, Medina tells us about a group of individuals who have the ability to do amazing things in spite of their IQ of 50 or less (with 100 being average). With an average IQ – more or less—we can do many things these individuals cannot, but we cannot do these specific things. These “savant” abilities amaze us, but even what we call “normal” demonstrates the amazing abilities of the brain. I am reminded of Psalm 139 that tells us that “we are fearfully and wonderfully made, who can know it?”

We are learning more and more of God’s handiwork and yet, we will never understand it all in our life in this world.

While Medina shares our awe of our marvelous brain, he looks to the “evolutionary process” as the source. However, as a great scientist he does have a powerful sense of observation and we can learn from him. He states his goal for the book well:

“My goal is to introduce you to 12 things we know about how the brain works. I call these Brain Rules. For each rule, I present the science and then offer for investigation how the rule might apply to our daily lives, especially at work and school. The brain is complex, and I am taking only slivers of information from each subject – not comprehensive but, I hope, accessible. The Brain Rules film, available at www.brainrules.net/dvd , is an integral part of the project.”

We will go through these rules one-by-one.


The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge, M.D. – The Culturally Modified Brain –Not Only Does the Brain Shape the Culture, Culture Shapes the Brain (Appendix 1)

Since all kinds of activities change the brain, as seen by brain mapping, cultured activities are no exception. “…the brain and genetics produce culture, but culture also shapes the brain. Sometimes these changes can be dramatic.” P. 288

Doidge uses the Sea Gypsies, nomadic people who live in the tropical islands in Burma, to demonstrate the culturally modified brain. These individuals learn to swim before they learn to walk and can see underwater. They are underwater hunter-gathers. Their lifestyle causes them to develop skills differently than ours do.

Scientists have tried to discover and explain why human beings, essentially alone, have developed culture. While primates have developed a very rudimentary culture, consider man. “If we considered the number of possible neural connections, we would be dealing with hyperastronomical numbers…” (Edelman, p294) concludes, “These staggering numbers explain why the human brain can be described as the most complex known object in the universe, and why it is capable of ongoing, massive microstructural change, and capable of performing so many different mental functions and behaviors, including our cultural activities.” P.294

In 2005, Michael Merzenich commented on the vulnerable brain – how the media reorganizes it:  “the Internet is just one of those things that contemporary humans can spend millions of “practice” events at, that the average human a thousand years ago had absolutely no exposure to. Our brains are massively remodeled by this exposure – but so, too, by reading, by television
, by video games, by modern electronics, by contemporary music, by contemporary tools, etc.” (p. 306)

Media has negative and positive effects on our brains. (Refer to our past blogs on Endangered Minds by Janet M Healy, PhD located on our website: http://www.centerforneurodevelopment.com)

Appendix 2 – Plasticity and the Idea of Progress

Swiss philosopher, Jean-Jaques Rousseau (1712-1778) wrote the book Emile (On Education). In this detailed book on child development “proposed that the ‘organization of the brain’ was affected by our experience, and that we needed to ‘exercise’ our senses and mental abilities the way we exercise our muscles.” ( p 313-314) He called this progress or development our “perfectability.” Later studies validated his proposals. Going too far, some called it “indefinite perfectibility of men.” (p. 316)

Yes, man is God’s special creation and has the capacity to grow and learn. With this we will say goodbye to The Brain That Changes Itself.

The Brain That Changes Itself Norman Doidge M.D. Chapter 11 –“More Than the Sum of Her Parts – A Woman Shows Us How Radically Plastic the Brain Can Be”

In Chapter 11, Dr. Doidge introduces us to Michelle Mack, a 29 year old who was born with only the right hemisphere of her brain. At birth, her doctors were not aware of this and now that they do know, they only have theories of what happened before birth. In order for Michelle to function well, her right hemisphere had to learn the function of the left hemisphere and economize its own function. At 29 she holds down a part time job and enjoys her family. There are some outwards signs of her lack of a left hemisphere: bent, twisted right hand that can be used for some things; brace on right leg; she is a lefty and her left limbs are normal. Her right visual field is limited as she has a hard time seeing things coming from her right. Blindness on her right side has helped her develop an extremely keen sense of hearing. Thus she can experience sensory overload in her hearing and touch.

During pregnancy, Michelle’s mother had some difficulties and apparently her body was trying to miscarriage. Both mom and daughter are happy it didn’t. Michelle’s parents began to notice things that indicated developmental problems – vision, motor. They noticed that she was tracking visually so she was not totally blind. Her dad noticed that she likes music and wanted to hear certain music over and over. He had her crawl to the record player to earn listening again. This helped develop her brain and function.

Michelle explained to Dr. Doidge that she would use rhyming, nonsensical words when frustrated. Concrete thinking is much easier than abstract thinking. She can play Solitaire very quickly because the decisions are very concrete. Other, more abstract decisions are more difficult for her.

Michelle demonstrated savant abilities. She could tell what day of the week a date was within the last 18 years by memory. For those dates before that time, she would have to figure it out, but still could do it quickly and accurately. Doidge told her about the work of Alexandr Luria, a Russian neuropsychologist with a memory artist who had a photographic memory. Also, he told her about “synesthetes” whose senses were “cross-wired” so that they had a color code for days of the week. Michelle said she had a scene connected with days of week.

Dr. Jordan Grafman, the chief of the Cognitive Neurosciences section of the National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke has been working with Michelle Mack. His background includes working with a woman whose brain was damaged in an assault. After five years, other doctors had given up on increasing this woman’s function. However, Grafman began an intensive program of rehab – mind and body –and the woman’s function increased. He also served our military personnel in Viet Nam. In this case as well, he saw increase in function where none was expected. He formulated a theory integrating “nondoctrinaire localization and plasticity. His research revealed four kinds of plasticity.

1)       “Map Expansion” – neurons in the center of an area focus more on a task than the ones on the outer limit. Different areas compete for those peripheral neurons. The greater the demand the more likely the use for that area.

2)       “Sensory Reassignment” – When one sense is blocked, another area takes over the function of the blocked sense. In blindness, the senses of hearing or touch develop more and are keener.

3)       “Compensatory Masquerade” – once explained as “alternative strategies” when there is more than one way to do something.

4)       “Mirror Region Takeover” – this occurs when a part of one hemisphere fails to do its job, the mirror region on the other side takes over the function as well as it can. When the damage occurs before specialization develops, function approximates “normal” more than when it is later. P. 276 This is true for Michelle, the damage was before birth, while her brain was being formed.

Michelle’s parents are making preparations for Michelle’s care after they are gone, but she is pretty happy the way she is. Doidge again introduces a person and researchers as windows into the plasticity of the brain.

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.

The Brain That Changes Itself – Dr. Norman Doidge Chapter 6 “Brain Lock Unlocked – Using Plasticity to Stop Worries, Obsessions, Compulsions, and Bad Habits”

In this chapter, Doidge introduces us to the work of Jeffrey M. Schwartz:

OCD – obsessive, compulsive disorder plagues individuals in many ways. For example:

  • Terrified at what has happened or will happen to themselves or their loved ones.
  • Reacting to an emotional trigger – hearing of a traumatic experience of another, reading about a chemical in the food supply, or seeing a gruesome image.
  • Suffering obsessions like fears of contracting a serious, terminal illness, or by being contaminated by germs or radiation, or demanding that something be kept in a perfect order that you only know about.
  • Obsession – a thud while driving had to be a person you ran over – you go back and check it numerous times.
  • Washing over and over because of perceived contamination.
  • A mother who fears she will hurt her own baby may wrap a butcher knife up in a towel and lock it in a “safe” place. P. 164-168

Treatment for OCDvery difficult: Medication and behavioral therapy are only partially effective for some people.  Jeffrey M. Schwartz developed “an effective, plasticity-based treatment. Other ways this treatment can help: nasty habits (nail biting, hair pulling, shopping, gambling, eating, jealousy, substance abuse, compulsive sexual behavior). Schwartz has compared the brain scans of typical individuals and those with OCD. By doing before and after scans, he documents effectiveness of his treatment.  For most of us when we make a mistake, we are aware of the mistake, worry about it and then correct it. Once we correct it we can move on while the individual with OCD cannot move on…  The orbital frontal cortex (just behind our eyes) is where we detect mistakes. The cingulate gyrus (deepest part of cortex) triggers anxiety. Then our “automatic gearshift” (caudate nucleus – deep in the center of the brain) allows us to move on unless it “sticks” or we experience “brain lock.” P. 169-170

Causes of “brain lock” vary – may be genetic, may be infections that swell the caudate. “Learning may also play a role in its development.” P. 170 Schwartz wondered if those with OCD could “manually” shift the gear – by “paying constant, effortful attention and actively focusing on something besides the worry, such as a new pleasurable activity.” In the process they would be growing a new brain circuit. “With this treatment we don’t so much ‘break’ the bad habits as replace the bad behaviors with better ones.” P. 170

Schwartz’ therapy has two basic steps:

  1. Recognize the problem and relabel it – not a germ problem, but OCD.
  2. Replace thoughts with a positive.  “Schwartz has found it essential to understand that it is not what you feel while applying the technique that counts, it is what you do.” P. 173

In chapter 3, “Redesigning the Brain” Doidge gave us two key laws of plasticity:

  1. “Neurons that fire together wire together.”
  2. “Neurons that fire apart wire apart.” P. 174

The more one is able to avoid acting on the compulsion, the weaker the bad connection becomes.

Typical medication: Anafranil or a Prozac-type drug complements the therapy.

I would recommend working with a naturopath along with the two steps Schwartz developed before using the traditional medication. Further, working with a neurodevelopmentalist will help you to get to the underlying causes.