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Book Review: The Brain that Changes Itself, by Norman Doidge, MD

by Emily Greenleaf Greenleaf.Emily@MacPhail.org 

In his book The Brain that Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science, Norman Doige describes an experiment carried out by Harvard neurologist Alvaro Pascual-Leone. Two groups of novice pianists – people who’ve never studied the instrument – are taught a sequence of notes. After their initial training, each group is asked to practice for two hours a day for five consecutive days.

One group practices physically – actually playing the instrument, while the other group sits in front of a keyboard, and practices mentally. Over the course of the experiment, the subjects’ brains are repeatedly mapped (noninvasively, using what, to my very limited understanding, sounds like big magnets) so that researchers can see which neurons are connected to which movements in the hand, and how this neural network is changed over the course of five days’ practice.

“Pascual-Leone found that both groups learned to play the sequence, and both showed similar brain map changes. Remarkably, mental practice alone produced the same physical changes in the motor system as actually playing the piece. By the end of the fifth day, the changes in motor signals to the muscles were the same in both groups, and the imagining players were as accurate as the actual players were on their third day.” (p. 201) In other words, mental practice - the focused, mental simulation of a movement and its associated ideas - is almost as effective as physical practice.

Pascual-Leone is just one of many researchers of brain plasticity – the human brain’s incredible ability to constantly reshape itself – whose work is described in this book. Doidge also looks at how we learn, and how we unlearn; what happens as we age; innovative techniques being used to help people rehabilitate following strokes or traumatic brain injury; techniques being used to help those with learning or developmental disabilities; and ways that culture shapes our brain structure.

If you’re interested in an excellent and engaging read, this book is now available for checkout from the Community Partnerships library on the third floor. 

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