The Brain That Changes Itself

A while back, I purchased the book The Brain That Changes Itself. I began reading it, but as I often do, got sidetracked and forgot about it. Recently, I found myself looking for a movie or documentary to watch while I worked around the house. I stumbled across the documentary The Brain That Changes Itself which features the author and some of the research presented in the book. I thought it could provide interesting fodder for my first blog post and I was certainly correct. The Brain That Changes Itself focuses on brain neuroplasticity and the power we have to change how brains function.

The movie opens with various images from the documentary and a man (I believe to be Dr. Michael Merzenich) saying, “There’s always a strong temptation to think of the brain or to call a brain a machine or talk about it as a computer.” Throughout the documentary, different researchers and neuroplasticians explore research and case studies that provide evidence that the wiring in the brain is not permanent and can be altered by changing one’s thoughts or behavior. Throughout the documentary, scientists use the various research techniques discussed in class and our text to gain insight into the plastic nature of the brain. By combining techniques such as neuropsychology, MRIs, fMRIs and TMS, researchers not only demonstrated how it’s possible to change cognitive function, but also how the underlying circuitry changes as well.

In class this past week, we focused on the visual system and how visual information is integrated and processed. Other senses, such as touch and proprioception are integrated similarly, by the routing of afferent information to different parts of the brain. What’s amazing is how quickly and proficiently our brains can learn to reroute and repurpose incoming signals to compensate for deficiencies. The first two case studies in The Brain That Changes Itself concern this ability of the brain (called sensory substitution) to reassign or create alternate pathways when the primary neural pathway is damaged.

Roger Behm, blind for most of his adult life (38 years, at the time the documentary was filmed), is fitted with a device that is held in his mouth and vibrates on his tongue, allowing him to “see.” I put that in quotes even though Roger explains, “Definitely people think, ‘Well, it’s touch.’ Well, not for me …as soon as I put that on, within a matter of seconds, I am seeing it. It’s drawing pictures in my head.” His brain is able to transform images drawn on his tongue with vibrations into visual images distinct enough that he can navigate his way through a path taped on the floor or point to specific features of shapes mounted on the wall.

Cheryl Schlitz lost 95-100% functionality in her vestibular apparatus as a side effect of a medication she was prescribed. Using the same device as Roger, Cheryl goes from wobbling and nearly falling over to being able to stand upright and completely still within minutes. Incredibly, Cheryl’s case not only demonstrates how quickly the brain adapts, but also that this adaptation is residual and cumulative. After each treatment, Cheryl’s sense of equilibrium was restored for longer until she no longer required use of the device at all.

Later in the film, Dr. Doidge, the author of The Brain That Changes Itself introduces what he calls the plastic paradox. We are all born with plastic potential, he explains. Our experiences and routines (or lack thereof) determine whether our brain becomes more flexible and adaptable as we age or more rigid and constrained. To emphasize this, Dr. Alvaro Pascual-Leone discusses the work he is doing to investigate neuroplasticity using TMS and visualization exercises. Dr. Pascual-Leone discusses a study he conducted comparing the brain scans of individuals who sat in front of a piano and practiced moving their fingers to the scans of those instructed to simply visualize the movements. After five days, the brain area associated with the movement of those fingers had gotten larger not only in the group that was actually performing the movements, but also in the group that was simply mentally rehearsing the movements. Similar to the study we discussed in class that illustrated the functional similarities in brains of patients making judgements about actual pictures and patients making judgements about mental pictures, Dr. Pascual-Leone’s study shows how thinking alone can activate and change the brain. He says, “The idea is that just thinking will change your brain …and what that ultimately means is that one needs to be careful with what one thinks.”

While I can’t possibly detail every case study presented in the documentary in one blog post, I’ve tried to present some of the most relevant and thought-provoking stories to hopefully inspire others to check it out. The ability of our brains to react and change in response to our thoughts, behaviors and environment makes them both resilient and vulnerable. Watching The Brain That Changes Itself certainly left me with thoughts about how I might improve my own cognitive function and teach my brain to better focus and adapt. As Dr. Doidge and Dr. Pascual-Leone point out, neuroplasticity is not a rare phenomenon, but instead an inherent quality of the brain. If we do not work to keep our brains flexible and instead allow our lives to be rigid and repetitive, our cognitive function may very well suffer.

To watch the documentary on YouTube, here’s the link: