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The Brain that Changes Itself by Norman Doidge (Book Review)

The Brain that Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain ScienceThe Brain that Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science by Norman Doidge

A wise old Irish man once told me that a wise old Jesuit once said to him at the beginning of a psychology lecture that “all psychology and philosophy exists in order to teach us to love other people”. As I watch television and read the news and listen to people around me speak, I hear a lot of “therapy speak”. Blaming my parents for my own problems – I’ve done it, but I’m actively working to turn this around and realising that with just a little bit of personal responsibility I am able to find a surprisingly deep sense of meaning in fulfilment in my life, and my relationships improve too. And a culture that is awash with hand-me-down Freudianism, bogged down in suspicion of the other person – trying to “see through” my neighbour rather than seeing my neighbour as he or she is. But, as C.S. Lewis aptly put it at the end of his book The Abolition of Man, “To see through everything is the same as not to see at all”. When I previously worked as a teacher it broke my heart to see how quickly children who have a bit more energy, or who think a bit differently to other children – often boys, although I don’t have statistics on this – are diagnosed with autism, or ADHD, or some other label. We try to fit human beings into boxes, into diagnoses. Freud is having a field day with us.

But to love is to see – to see the other person as he or she is.

And that is what this book does so well. I went into this book expecting it to be little more than an introduction to the key data involved in the field of neuroplasticity (the study of the brain’s ability to change its own structure), and while there is a good amount of data and peer review in this book, enough to give scientific credibility to the findings it presents, what struck me more is how human this book is.

In my tentative forays into the maelstrom of academia over the past few years, something caught my notice. I smelt a rat. Reading this book, I came to know what it was. I sensed that much of academia separates out the human from the study. We talk about “the brain” or “my brain” or “her brain” – the brain as somehow separate to my identity, or her identity, or separate from the human person altogether. And this allows us to treat the brain in a way that is detached and perhaps even callous. We lose a sense of the wonder. We think that just because we can model an artificial neural network with some analogy to the human brain, we can reduce the brain, and thereby the human, to the realm of the virtual and the technological. But humans are not objects. I am not an object. You are not an object. We are human beings. With souls, with spirits, with yearnings, with hopes, with sadnesses, with desires and aspirations.

What strikes me about this book is how Doidge speaks about the subjects of the studies. He invariably introduces each person by talking about his or her family, upbringing, schooling and key life experiences, interspersed with stories and words from the people themselves. It is narrative. He tells a good, and often moving, story. And that is what makes it so human. Because to be human is to tell stories. It’s not the only thing that makes us human, but it’s one of those things that seems to be unique to us. Gathering around the campfire, telling it how I see it, and looking at the people around me, wanting to know: “Is it the same for you?” We want to be redeemed from our loneliness and stories are in large part how we seek to do this. Kazuo Ishiguro said words to this effect somewhere – I think I saw it somewhere on Goodreads a while ago.

There was one very moving section towards the end of the book in which Doidge introduces a young lady with a particular neurological divergence, whose brain operates slightly different to the bulk of the bell curve. I expected him to drone on about how her life has been a struggle, an uphill battle to manage her “condition”, and I expected her parents to start moaning about how they hadn’t expected to have a child with her “condition”, and tell how they “had to” care for her growing up, and how this “interfered” with their hopes and dreams. But no, there was none of this at all. Instead we get to know a lively, gentle – and opinionated! – young lady who delights in serving her local church by folding the service pamphlets, who finds great enjoyment in her work as an administrator (I think that’s right) and who loves her friends and family with a ferocity that would rival Cedric Diggory.

She is a person who loves.

And this brings me back to my first point, to those words quoted to me by my Irish anam cara. There is too much psychology out there and too little love. There are too many books out there trying to teach me how to hate myself and hate my parents, and not enough about how to accept myself and appreciate my parents. There are rare exceptions – Fredrik Backman has written some great bestselling novels that do a good job of showing both sides of the parent-child relationship, and they have helped me build a deeper understanding towards my parents. Another is Ashley C Ford, who writes so movingly about her strong, yet fraught, relationship with her parents in her unforgettable memoir Somebody’s Daughter. May there be many more books like these and may this hand-me-down Freudianism skip a generation, or vanish forever – I for one would be glad to see it go, and I’d be happy for a return to laughter and good humour in the family. Imagine if the Weasley children had gone to a therapist and complained about their parents instead of seeing the funny side of things – what a loss that would have been. Then again, if anyone were to go to see a therapist, I’m sure it would be Percy, and he eventually came back from his snobbish ways – hopefully the same thing will happen in our culture. We need more filial piety, more heart, more nurturing and more joy, laughter and celebration. More dancing together in the kitchen. More chasing each other around the house. More silliness. There’s nothing wrong with a being a little bit crazy. Just keep in moderation and say sorry when you go a bit too far. But maybe I’ve gone too far here and spilled a bit too much of my guts.

Time to go listen to some Olivia Rodrigo.

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