How neuroplasticity affects us – it’s true: use it or lose it!

Book review: The brain that changes itself, by Norman Doidge.

This is a truly amazing read and gives incredible hope and insight to us all about human nature, ageing, parenting, learning, educating, rehabilitating, and improving our lives – intellectually and emotionally. In his international best-selling book, Dr Doidge, a research psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, presents the reader with fascinating, incredible experiments and revolutionary research about the human brain and neuroplasticity. Research which has changed the way psychiatry, psychology, medicine, education and brain trauma therapies now view the brain.

The Brain that changes itself

Previously the brain was believed to be a fixed, finite, complex machine. Like a computer, specific parts performed specific functions. And like machines, our brains couldn’t rewire or grow new parts. It was considered a waste of time improving a brain whose functions declined as you aged. I’m relieved to discover these beliefs were spectacularly wrong.

What is neuroplasticity?

Neuroplasticity shows that our brain cells can reorganise themselves and create new connections (therefore new capacity) in response to our actions, even our thoughts, well into old age. Nerve cells (neurons) in our brains have axons, which physically grow nerve endings to connect with other neurons when we learn new things. The more we experience and learn, the more connections. So there is some truth to ‘practice makes perfect.’ These physical connections make up the pathways of our learning and intelligence. YouTube has a great story and explanation of neuroplsticity –


Studies have shown students grow new pathways when studying. Have you ever crammed for an exam, only to forget the information months later? Learning that isn’t reinforced loses its neural connections. It really is a case of ‘use it or lose it’ (funny how a lot of those old adages are true!). Continually reinforced information binds the nerve cells more closely.  The longer and more frequently these cells send and receive impulses the stronger and more enduring the link. This is even how bad habits, neuroses and phobias form.

Brain cell connections

Decades ago, studies showed that rats raised in stimulating, enriched environments were smarter because they had more complex, neural connections. I have to say this, to justify dragging my kids to the library and museums so often.

Neuroplasticity and Education

As far as neuroplasticity is concerned, the harder students work in school, the more effort they put in, the brain gets better at what it does. These students will most likely become smarter, more lateral thinkers. Repetition and effort drives neuroplasticity. Here is a transcript of an interview with Norman Doidge regarding education on the ABC 7.30 Report –

NORMAN DOIDGE: In the ’60s, there were things that were part of a kind of classical education that people did away with ’cause they thought that they were irrelevant’, like an almost fanatical attention to elocution and handwriting, or memorising long poems. But, it now turns out that what these activities did is they exercised very important parts of the brain that allow you to think in long sentences, have deep internal monologues and a certain amount of grace in all kinds of expression. And probably a lot of damage was done by doing away with these exercises that were there for good reasons we didn’t understand.

KERRY O’BRIEN: You mean that they have reduced the scope of the functions of a child’s brain as they grow to adulthood?

NORMAN DOIDGE: Yes. The simplest example would be memory of long verses of poetry. It allows you to speak in public and have long, deep paragraphs of thought in private. When you reduce the amount of memory in those processors, we’re reduced to a world of sound bites.

As a teacher, I believe repetition in basic maths and literacy consolidates important concepts for students that require it, rather than rush on to the next topic in a crowded school curriculum. Rote-learning isn’t that bad for some of us. Also, information presented in different ways enables more complex learning pathways to develop. Many students in upper primary now struggle with basic maths and literacy concepts.

Neuroplasticity and health

There is increasing evidence that changes in the brain and nervous system associated with neuroplasticity can result in improvements in many health-related problems. Doidge sites success stories in neuro-rehabilitation for obsessive compulsive disorder, autism, balance problems, chronic paindevelopmental delay and dyslexia, dizziness and vertigolearning difficulties, and memory problems, to name a few. Undamaged neurons can compensate for injury and disease by connecting with other undamaged nerve cells, forming new neural pathways to accomplish a needed function.  But sometimes the brain needs help to rehabilitate.

Take, for example, the story of Paul Bach-y-Rita who developed a tactile vision machine (see below) back in 1969, but was ignored. With this machine he enabled congenitally blind people to see, by successfully (and incredibly) substituting one sense (touch – the skin on the back) to replace another (sight). One area of the brain was able to take on the work of another. “We see with our brains, not with our eyes,” Bach-y-Rita says in the book.

Paul bach y rita

Also, Edward Taub’s research showed that the brain can often reorganise itself to compensate and recover functions after devastating strokes. After a stroke, victims’ attempts to use the affected area are met with failure, often leading to nonuse. Therefore, many people never regain function of that part of their body. Taub’s constraint-induced movement therapy forces the use of the affected part of the patient’s body to begin moving by physically restraining the unaffected part. Through prolonged practice, new neurons take over lost functions as long as there is adjacent living brain tissue in the area that was destroyed.

Constraint induced therapy

The brain that changes itself also poses challenging questions regarding the plastic relationships that positive thinking, culture, our experiences, and our genes have with the physical structure of our brains.

Visit Norman Doidge’s website for more information:

Has neuroplasticity helped you? My next blog will continue with neuroplasticity and how to exercise your brain into old age – it’s NOT a waste of time. Also, the dark side of our resilient yet sensitive brains……PORNOGRAPHY. And yes, I snuck it into my novel, ARAFURA (neuroplasticity, not pornography).

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This entry was posted in Arafura, autism, Children, Neuroplasticity, Norman Doidge, Parenting, Rehabilitation, Stroke. Bookmark the permalink.

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