The Brain that Changes Itself: hopeful book on the science of neuroplasticity

Norman Doidge's 2006 book The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science was rightly celebrated on its initial release, and remains fascinating today. It's a chronicle of the checkered history of the theory of lifelong brain plasticity, an on-again/off-again theory that the brain's deepest, most specialized structures can be rewired to accomplish new tasks and to view the world in new ways, all through our lives.

Brain plasticity exists in counterpoint to "localizationism," the theory that the brain is innately divided into functional centers -- the "speech center," the "vision center" -- and that these centers are hardwired to do one thing. It also exists in counterpoint to the idea that what plasticity the brain has, it loses in adult life, so that we become innately more set in our ways as we age.

Doidge, a medical doctor and psychoanalyst, puts forth a good case for the notion that our brain's propensity for wiring in certain ways is only that, a propensity, one that can be overcome by circumstance, force of will, training and injury, for better or for worse. Working like a biographer, Doidge gives us compelling personal histories of patients and doctors who've demonstrated the remarkable plasticity of the brain, right up to a woman who was literally born with one entire side of her brain missing, who nevertheless walks, talks, thinks, votes, holds down a job and so on -- having plastically retasked her remaining half-brain into taking on the tasks more generally assigned to the missing hemisphere.

Doidge's case histories are remarkable in that they demonstrate the spectrum of rewiring that the brain is capable of -- and the spectrum of difficulty associated with different kinds of rewiring. A patient whose balance-determining organs are burned out by a medication overdose, who has spent years falling, hurting herself, sick and depressed, learns to use a prosthetic that transmits positional data to her tongue in mere minutes, trains for hours, and receives days' worth of benefits, eventually recovering her life. On the other hand, stroke victims who've lost the regions of their brains that controlled certain parts of their bodies or certain kinds of thoughts have to train intensively, in a gruelling regime that demands everything they have, but they, too, stage remarkable recoveries in very short time.

From autism to ADD, Doidge's heavily footnoted tour through the cutting-edge of neuroplastic research, therapies and theories inspires on every page, with the message that you can think yourself different -- change the patterns of association, change the underlying physical substrate in your head. Your limitations can be smashed, your talents honed to new heights. An appendix called "The Culturally Modified Brain," even goes some way to discussing the way that our cultural outlooks (long acknowledged to having been shaped by our brains) can also shape our brains -- changing not just how we interpret our sensory data, but the limits and capacity of the neuronal structures that process sensory data.

Ultimately, this is one of the most hopeful and fascinating popular science books I've read, a book showing how science underpins the idea of positive thinking as a force for good.

The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science

The Brain That Changes Itself official website


  1. with the message that you can think yourself different — change the patterns of association, change the underlying physical substrate in your head. Your limitations can be smashed, your talents honed to new heights.

    Is it any easier to read than Being and Nothingness?

  2. why is the process of religious conversion frequently described as “snapping” or some other high speed term? Is there a cascade effect at a certain threshold?

  3. This surely has a useful place in psychiatry? Imagine that, if you had bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia, and with the willpower, one could cure it!

  4. Admittedly I haven’t read the book, but it seems a bit heavy on the wishful thinking. Complete with a heavy dose of “you too can have superpowers, you just have to think yourself super”.

    If you lose primary visual cortex in a head injury, no amount of positive vibes is going to make you not completely and utterly blind.

  5. Bearchild – it’s not a willpower issue.

    People with organic disorders don’t “will” their remaining brain tissue to take over the damaged functions. You have to present someone with the right environment and the right challenges in order to prompt the brain to retrain itself.

    Even more complicating, if the condition is a constantly evolving one, like Alzheimer, the brain may not be able to change fast enough to keep pace with the problem, let alone outpace it and “cure” it.

    But yes, the principle is already used to treat various forms of mental illness – cognitive behavior therapy is used to treat some kinds of chronic depression, for example, either in conjunction with or instead of using antidepressants.

    After fighting depression for over a decade I needed antidepressants for six months before even starting therapy, just to make me familiar with what “not depressed” could even feel like. It was such a foreign sensation that there wasn’t a hope of trying to retrain my brain into a healthy pattern because I couldn’t even comprehend what that sort of pattern would “feel” like.

    I stayed on antidepressants for over a year after starting therapy to keep me functional enough to actually keep going to therapy and to try to work with the therapist instead of reverting to an emotionally crippled uncooperative lump.

    But that year that the drugs bought me was the time I needed to learn how to maintain myself, more or less. I’m not “cured” – I’m still a person with chronic depression. But I’m not actively depressed. The difference is critical.

  6. I don’t think that is what they are saying. The available grey-goop ware can be reprogrammed, but SOME must be available.

  7. #5: I haven’t read the book yet, but I did watch the related documentary so I’m familiar with the premise. I suggest reading the book or watching the documentary before you accuse the author of magical thinking.

    He doesn’t suggest you can think yourself super, and he doesn’t suggest you can replace the visual cortex by thinking happy thoughts, just send him $30 to find out how.

    He DOES suggest that there’s a lot more that CAN be done than people currently assume, and he points out that the current prevailing theory that things get “set” and can’t be changed means that we treat the aged and the wounded in a way that means they can’t get the opportunity to improve at all.

    Learning the limits of neuroplasticity means learning what CAN be fixed, under what circumstances, and HOW to do it.

    The woman with one brain hemisphere has deficits. But she has a LOT less deficits than people assume when you tell them she has one hemisphere. THAT’s the message.

  8. After reading this book over a year ago and blogging about it, my key takeaway was that there is a significant acceleration in neuroscience knowledge being gathered that is shifting from a bunch of anecdotes to a deeper understanding of the malleability of the brain and its pathways.

    Though just an interested observer, I’ve been fascinated by other areas of research that align with what Doidge presented in his book: namely the analysis of Buddhist monks and their meditative states and what’s being learned about brain changes in the minds (and thus on the bodies) of those who’ve practiced meditation for most of their lives.

    (Here is the lab at U of Wisconsin that did that research and is doing much more).

  9. Maybe it’s just because I’ve been reading philosophy of mind all morning (if you’re interested: mainly Metzinger and Susan Blackmore’s very pleasant ‘Conversations on Consciousness), but I’ve got to take issue with Cory’s poetic formulation: “you can think yourself different.”

    Sure, I know he doesn’t think of this stuff as Secret-style pseudoscience, and that he just wanted a nice line, but as a few commenters above have noticed it’s a bit misleading to think of it this way. “You can think yourself different” seems to reinforce the intuition that ‘you yourself’ qua Cartesian subject are somehow in control of your brain. When by contrast what neuroscience is founded upon is the counter-intuition that you yourself *are* what goes on in your brain, and nothing more. So without getting into tricky metaphysical territory (free will &c.), I’d say that a more accurate – albeit far less pleasant – way to say what you were trying to say would be something like: “with the assistance of a cognitive-behavioural therapist, you can place yourself in a series of controlled situations that will produce thought-patterns which, over time, will work to rewire your brain and thus make you think and act differently!”

  10. If you lose primary visual cortex in a head injury, no amount of positive vibes is going to make you not completely and utterly blind.


  11. Glanced at the cover, didn’t even skim TFA, haven’t read the posts.

    I just have to say “Doidge” is my awesome new sound effect.

    Carry on.

  12. I’ve witnessed the brains plasticity first hand. I went progressively blind from 14-16 years old. While I was going blind my left eye was dominant with the right contributing less and less until nothing at all. My brain became used to monocular vision, then none at all.
    I had a sight restoring operating when I was 18 giving me a good measure of sight again in my right eye. I had to re-wire my brain to the opposite scenario, seeing from my right and ignoring the inputs from my left. A year later I had my left eye done and it was a far more successful operation and I became again left eye dominant, with the right eye contributing some to my visual acuity, but certainly not an even split of the work.
    I could certainly feel that my brain was reprogramming itself, taking notice of the shifting V1 fields. First getting less activity from V1 on the right and left sides, repurposing some of the neurons, then reacting to renewed activity on the left and then right. I had to learn to see again for the second and third times.
    Motor control was there all along, but certainly adjusting the balance of inputs from the left and right eyes into a complete whole “vision” of the outside world is more what this book is about.
    (I also learned additional motor control to adjust my focus distance, in the phases where I only had one good eye, to have sufficient depth perception to play tennis.)

  13. The cornea were massively deformed and clouded, like looking through the bottom of a thick, badly made bear glass that got progressively more out of focus and saturated. I could see vague colours, but no consistent shapes, no straight lines.

  14. ah, but of course the retinas were functioning, my apologies for not thinking.

    On a related note; eating fish stops macular degeneration.

  15. I haven’t read the book yet, but I work in neuroplasticity research and my boss gets quoted quite a few times in the book. One thing I noticed is that if the book makes you think neuroplasticity is an “an on-again/off-again theory”, then it gives the wrong message. I’m also unsure if a psychoanalyst should be the one to write a book about this; he might be biased by a certain view on mental illness.

    Neuroplasticity might sound strange and has only been researched in the last 20 years, but it is a real thing that, without a doubt, can cause big trouble as well as generate benefits and, most importantly, can be used strategically to cure illness – in case of my own research, chronic pain.

    The aforementioned mental disorders like depression and schizophrenia are more complicated, because they are much more connected to biochemistry, which is harder to influence by rewiring in the brain.

  16. Martha Stout, who wrote the Sociopath Next Door, recently wrote The Paranoia Switch: How Terror Rewires Our Brains and Reshapes Our Behavior–and How We Can Reclaim Our Courage. In the book she talks about how the political “leaders” in our country used the events of 9/11 to exploit our fears to their ends. They put many of us in a constant state of fear which actually rewired our brains. They used the traumatic event to provide a PTSD like state.

    The constant replaying of the video, the color code warnings, the harping on the terrorists coming to kill us in our beds in the Midwest and the airport security theatre all reinforced the view.

    Using fear to rewire the brain is a very effective method of longer term control.

  17. Thanks for the link to this book. I had some intensive learning regarding the disparate plasticity potentials of the central and peripheral nervous system in my bio psychology class. I hope it’s not all medicine though – neuropsycs can understand and write about plasticity better than most.

  18. Doidge’s book changed my life. I’ve struggled with an epilepsy/pain syndrome (damaged thalamus) that has disabled me for the last decade. Using simple neuroplastice exercises I am able to completely extinguish horrid pain without medication. Through practices that build healthy new connections between my brain and body I now am mostly pain-free when at rest.

    I bought it last year to do research for my book Hel’s Bet – the protagonist is into brain-self-hackery. I went to a new pain doctor in February; he had just seen Doidge give a speech at a pain convention and was eager to try NP pain-control techniques.

    I now manipulate objects with my toes for about 20 minutes a day. I was hoping for some pain reduction but the pain vanished completely at times as the new neural connections route tactile signals around the damaged parts of my brain.

    I talk about the techniques and their impact on my life (and art!) in this blog post:

  19. I haven’t read the book, but I’ve done mirror therapy for people with strokes and one person with nerve damage from a burn. (All chronic, who had had previous non-mirror PT) Seen some people control fingers they hadn’t moved for years, and in two cases they had been told it was unlikely they would never move those fingers again. About %50 report definitely gaining movement or function they hadn’t had before.
    Here’s the expensive DIY kit,
    but I use $1.50 mirrors from the dollar store and a cardboard box. I give them a mirror for home and show them how to do it. If there’s cognitive deficits in the individual, I show the caretaker.

    I never promise anything, but tell them this is one of the things I would try if I was in their situation.

  20. #30 Snig

    I’m glad someone is using mirrors as therapy! Definitely something I’d like to try :)

  21. Is he definitely a psychoanalyst? An MD who is so fundamentally opposed to scientific methods of thinking that he becomes a psychoanalyst (not a psychotherapist) is not to be trusted.

  22. Raj77,
    He’s definitely done more in research than the average MD, he has several publications in legit journals as per Pubmed. He’s a psychiatrist and a psychoanalyst and an MD.

    here’s his bio, according to him.

    You can be a psychoanalyst and adhere to scientific method, or stay an MD and not be scientific at all. I’m not an advocate for psychoanalysis, and I’ve a lot of respect for MD’s who are scientific, but I find your assessment of who to trust is, well, unscientific.

  23. Neuroplasticity learnings emerged from animal research. See the series in Slate magazine about the origins of PETA and the monkeys with their nerves severed.

  24. I’m both saddened and astonished by the protests levied here against neuroplasticity and what it not only suggests but has already been multiply proven to offer.

    Anyone even partly conversant with contemporary neuroscience or the extensive work done with Tibetan monks (for just one example) at the University of Wisconsin and elsewhere would not for a moment be either alarmed, struggling with strawmen of their own raising, or skeptical of what either Cory Doctorow or Norman Doidge are saying here.


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