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Thursday, August 6, 2009

Book Report

The Brain That Changes Itself

YOU MUST READ THIS BOOK, teachers and non-teachers alike.

Read this review (from

It takes a rare talent to explain science to the rest of us. Oliver Sacks is a master at this. So was the late Stephen Jay Gould. A case can be made for John Emsley, one-time science writer in residence at Cambridge, and author, most recently, of Better Looking, Better Living, Better Loving: How Chemistry Can Help You Achieve Life's Goals (2007). 

And now there is Norman Doidge, a psychiatrist who divides his time between Columbia University and the University of Toronto. Four years ago, Doidge set himself the most cerebral of tasks: to understand a concept called neuroplasticity. The brain, far from being a collection of specialized parts, each fixed in its location and function, is in fact a dynamic organ, one that can rewire and rearrange itself as the need arises. That need can arise when the brain is physically damaged, as it is by a stroke, or simply when it is allowed to go to seed, as it has in my case. 

It is an insight from which all of us can benefit. People with severe afflictions -- strokes, cerebral palsy, schizophrenia, learning disabilities, obsessive compulsive disorders and the like -- are the most obvious candidates, but who among us would not like to tack on a few IQ points or improve our memories? 

To benefit from a concept, one must first grasp it, and that is what makes 
The Brain That Changes Itself such a terrific book. You don't have to be a brain surgeon to read it -- just a person with a curious mind. Doidge is the best possible guide. He has a fluent and unassuming style, and is able to explain difficult concepts without talking down to his readers. 

The case study is the psychiatric literary genre par excellence, and Doidge does not disappoint. There is a woman who manages quite well on just half a brain, an eye surgeon who made a remarkable recovery from a severe stroke, a seven-year-old who had to be taught how to hear pitch, an eight-year-old girl whose autism was holding her back from learning how to speak. Their stories are truly inspirational, and Doidge tells them with great compassion and sensitivity. 

Buy this book. Your brain will thank you. 

-- Jessica Warner, senior scientist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health

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