Can you teach an old dog new tricks? Dr. Norman Doidge author of The Brain That Changes Itself is a psychiatrist that has opened the door to the idea that the brain is maleable or at the very least not “hard wired”. The idea that one is able to teach an old dog new tricks through the reexamination of brain functions certainly qualifies as a Revolution. It is important to understand what Neuroplasticity is in order gauge the significance of Dr. Doidge’s discoveries.
The complete definition of Neuroplasticity is too large for an article of this nature but can be found at the provided link. A quick and easy definition taken from Merriam-Webster is to say that Neuroplasticity is the “Capacity of Neurons and neural networks in the brain change their connections and behavior in response to new information.” Dr. Doidge defines it on a Youtube video as “That property of the brain that allows it to change its structure and function.” What this means is that contrary to previous thoughts about brain structures areas that are damaged either by trauma or birth defects would not be considered inaccessible. The idea behind neuroplasticity is that a brain’s synapses activate neurons according to experience. The idea that the brain is changeable and not hard-wired and that it strengthens or weakens over time is called synaptic plasticity.
In The Neuroplasticity Revolution with Dr. Norman Doidge Norene Weisen highlights a webinar with Dr. Doidge where he discusses the significance of the brain’s plasticity. She highlights an example Dr. Doidge shared of a woman named ‘Cheryl’. It turned out that “her balance had been so damaged by the antibiotic gentamicin that she couldn’t stand without the feeling that she was falling.” In the article written Dr. Doidge describes the methods Paul Bach-y-Rita used to treat Cheryl. The use of electrodes on the tongue provided corrective sensory feedback. Cheryl was able to benefit from this process and was after a period of time able to regain the ability to stand. This is one example that Dr. Doidge used to highlight the Neuroplasticity Revolution.
The significance of the idea that the brain can be fixed when before it had been thought that when the brain is damaged it was irreversible is profound to say the least. This means that the conventional way of think about learning disabilities, stroke victims and the like have to be reexamined. Dr. Doidge says in the afore mentioned Youtube video says that “anything having to do with human training or education has to be reexamined in light of Neuroplasticity.” To paraphrase Dr. Doidge he says that it’s not right to say that the brain produces culture but that culture rewires the brain. These are groundbreaking ideas that come in direct conflict with the previously held concepts of the brain being hard-wired. Toward the end of the video Dr. Doidge does say that we ought not replace one metaphor (i.e. the brain as “hard-wired”) with another one that the brain is completely maleable but that there is a middle ground that needs to be understood moving forward.
The mere hope that previously held thoughts of permanent brain damage can be repaired, or that functions of the brain that had been dormant since birth can be activated is profound and ought to excite even the most skeptic. The Neuroplasticity Revolution and its far reaching effects on learning ought to raise hope and excitement.