LFCS Book Club: The Brain That Changes Itself
When many people think of reading, they imagine being on holidays, relaxing on the lounge, or passing the time on a flight. They pick up a story of someone’s life, a romantic comedy, an adventure into the world of fantasy, or perhaps the investigations of a great detective. Do they choose a book about neuroscience and brain functioning? You can be forgiven for thinking ‘No’.
So what’s got over a million people picking up The Brain that Changes Itself? From a collection of over 30,000 books published on the brain, this one has been chosen as the best. It’s available in more than hundred countries and in more than 20 languages, and is a New York Times Bestseller.
Perhaps it’s the entering of a territory we never thought possible. It could be the commitment of brilliant scientists to pioneering a new idea that challenges everything we think we know about the brain. Perhaps it’s the moving and inspiring stories of personal triumph. I suspect it’s all of these and more.
In a Nutshell
Written by Dr Norman Doidge, a Canadian Psychiatrist, The Brain that Changes Itself, explores neuroplasticity, the discovery that the brain can change itself and is ‘able to change its own structure and function, even into old age’. The book follows the stories of people whose deficits were once described as hopeless, and who are now making remarkable progress.
‘We see a woman born with half a brain that rewired itself to work as a whole, a woman labelled retarded who cured her deficits with brain exercises and now cures those of others, blind people learning to see, learning disorders cured, IQs raised, aging brains rejuvenated, painful phantom limbs erased, stroke patients recovering their faculties, children with cerebral palsy learning to move more gracefully, entrenched depression and anxiety disappearing, and lifelong character traits altered’
What can we learn?
While most of us are fortunate enough not to be living with the types of deficits explored in this novel, there are things we can learn from each of the remarkable cases Dr Doidge describes.
In his chapter on using plasticity to stop worries and obsessions, Dr Doidge discusses the core techniques scientists are using to help people with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). The best results for people suffering from this condition have come when instead of focussing on the cause of their worry (e.g. a fear of germs), they focus on doing something completely different, and enjoyable (e.g. playing sport with a friend). Dr Doidge describes this process as a way for people to ‘shift gears’ or ‘change the channel’. Brain scans show that by doing this, new (and more positive) neural pathways are created in our brains. If people continually engage in these behaviours when they start to worry or obsess, their brain starts to use these positive neural pathways more regularly and changing the channel becomes easier. The worrying then becomes less and less over time as the brain uses the new pathways more than the old obsessive ones. Essentially, it’s not about breaking bad habits or thought patterns, but instead replacing unhelpful behaviours and thoughts with better ones.
So what does this mean?
How many of us arrive home from work still thinking about something that happened during the day? How many of us worry about something we have to do the next day? This fixation and worry about work, is a daily example of when we have trouble ‘changing the channel’.
We can’t go back and change what happened, and we can’t be part of tomorrow until tomorrow. However, we can change our thoughts and behaviour now.
Occupational stress research highlights the importance of detaching yourself from work in order to be able to reduce stress, and function better the next day. So, instead of focussing on the work problem or issue, why not try switching your focus to something completely different or to an activity you find enjoyable. Not only will it help your stress levels, plasticity tells us it will train your brain to reduce this type of worrying in the future.
Suggestions for switching focus
Why not try one of these things today?
- Send a message to your brain that it’s the end of the work day by changing your clothes when you get home.
- Avoid work emails when you are at home. Send an email to a friend to refocus your brain on the other uses for email.
- Get involved in positive social activities such as spending time with family and friends, sports and exercise, or try a new hobby. Do something completely different to you work and let your brain build some new pathways!
While you may feel that this book or brain science is ‘not your thing’, I encourage you to take up the challenge and leap into unfamiliar and uncharted reading territory. There is much to learn as you explore the stories of people whose lives have been changed, rejuvenated, and strengthened by what we now know about neuroplasticity. Let yourself be inspired, as I was, by the extraordinary potential of the human brain.
- Alexandra Walsh, Associate Consultant
Additional Source: Etzion, D., Eden, D., & Lapidot, Y. (1998). Relief from job stressors and burnout: Reserve service as a respite. Journal of Applied Psychology, 83, 577–585.
Image Source: http://www.normandoidge.com/