The Brain That Changes Itself – Doidge

Title: The Brain That Changes Itself

Author: Doidge, Norman

Genre: Neuroplasticity

Category: Professional, Psychology, Neuroplasticity, Neuro Physical Therapy, Neuroscience, Neurorehab


How does a limb affected by a stroke return it’s function? Why can a blind man move around just as well as anyone else and even hear better? Why does an amputee continue to feel his amputated foot even months after surgery? Why can someone with a learning disability at birth improve?

The Brain is not as static as we might think. Contrasting with the static model of history, Doidge paints a beautiful picture of a brain that can adapt and grow. Through case studies that illustrate the brain’s resilience and ability to transform as well as an overview of the new science behind Neuroplasticity; the case is made for a new theory of the Brain.

Important Points:

A Primer on Neuroplasticity

To put it simply, the historical model of the brain is inaccurate. Old models describe a brain that is static and unchanging, where you are stuck with the faculties you are born with. Prognosis following an injury was poor and if you are born with a disability, you would probably need someone to take care of you or historically at the extreme’s you were committed to an asylum or other such facility. Thankfully, years of science and anecdotal evidence has given us a better understanding of the brain. 

The Brain That Changes Itself illustrates our new understanding of Neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity as defined by Oxford Dictionary is “the ability of the brain to form and reorganize synaptic connections, especially in response to learning or experience or following injury”. Doidge illustrates the brain’s ability to reorganize itself or heal itself by describing stroke patient’s return of function in an affected limb, new abilities or heightened abilities following blindness or deafness, and even resetting compulsions like OCD related to hyperactive areas in the brain. The true power that comes from this new understanding is the fact that these changes happen without medication or surgery. The brain is constantly altering it’s maps, where old and existing areas can move into injured areas to replenish function. New connections can be made and old harmful pathways can be rerouted. The brain is a growth oriented organ, one that exists in potential and is constantly growing, reinforcing connections, and changing.

The Culturally Modified Brain 

Which influences which, Culture or the Brain? The relationship between Culture and the Brain illustrates the uniqueness of the Human Brain and informs us of a new perspective on Neuroplasticity. Aside from return of function or any of the plastic changes discussed before, the influence of culture on the brain is a fascinating perspective. As mentioned before, the research has shown that plastic changes in the brain can occur from any sustained activity “…including physical activities, sensory activities, learning, thinking, and imagining”. Culture and Cultural ideas are no exception and also have a measurable impact on the brain. Thus, sustained cultural activities such as “…reading, studying music, or learning new languages” evolves and influences the growth of the brain. This influence of culture on the brain informs a new perspective on evolution through the lens of Neuroplasticity; “…A Neuroplastically informed view of culture and the brain implies a two-way street: the brain and genetics produce culture, but culture also shapes the brain”. 

So what does this mean? Why are we not still hunter-gatherers? The research shows that we still share the original circuitry of our ancestors or modules. These modules or hardware in the brain are designed to do specific cultural tasks like language, mating, thinking. These modules in modern humans have adapted to the modern world. The same modules in our ancestors, those modules specific to recognizing faces for example, now have adapted to recognize cars and trucks – objects our ancestors would not normally have to process. Cognitive processing and thousands of years of Neuroplastic change bring us to the brain of today. 

Along with modules specific to cultural tasks, our brains are also primed for those modules we consider more “animalistic” and instinctual. Why these “brutish animal instincts” are not pervasive in today’s modern human is a testament to the effect of culture and it’s neuroplastic effect on the brain. Through “sublimation”, ancestral human predatory and dominance instincts are civilized. 

“The plastic brain solves the riddle of sublimation. Areas that evolved to perform hunter-gatherer tasks such as stalking prey can, because they are plastic, be sublimated into competitive games, since our brains evolved to link different neuronal groups and modules in novel ways. There is no reason why neurons from the instinctual parts of our brains cannot be linked to our more cognitive-cerebral ones and to our pleasure centers, so that they literally get wired together to form new wholes”.

An example that illustrates the neuroplastic and civilized effect of culture on our instincts or instinctual modules is the game of chess. The hallmark of sublimation being that the animal instinct is combined with a higher order cerebral task therefore it can continue to be expressed but in a more civilized fashion.

“When an instinct, such as stalking prey, is linked up to a civilized society, such as cornering the opponent’s king on the chessboard, and the neuronal networks for the instinct and the intellectual activity are also linked, the two activities temper each other – playing chess is no longer about bloodthirsty stalking, though it still has some of the exciting emotions of the hunt. The dichotomy between ‘low’ instinctual and ‘high’ cerebral begins to disappear. Whenever the low and high transform each other to create a new whole, we can call it a sublimation.”

What happens when civilization fails to rewire the hunter-gatherer brain? These early and more animalistic modules exist. They are not dormant but rather civilization gives them new functions. That relationship is certainly tenuous however and is evident when civilization breaks down. “…the sad proof that civilization is a composite of the higher and lower brain functions is seen when civilization breaks down in civil wars, and brutal instincts emerge full force, and theft, rape, destruction, and murder become commonplace.” 

Today we are still humans with hunter-gatherer brains. Centuries of civilization and cultural modification has allowed for neuroplastic change to these original structures. Without culture, “…a regression to barbarism is always possible”. Doidge continues with this cultural lens on Neuroplasticity and illustrates how different cultures beget populations with different brains influencing people’s perception and giving evidence to support why cultures conflict with each other and differ in perspective. 

**This perspective on Neuroplasticity and highlight on culture is incredibly fascinating and complements my professional relationship with Neuroplasticity being focused on return of function, etc. 

Neuroplasticity and a Growth Mindset

This final lens on Neuroplasticity that is highlighted is the relationship between Neuroplasticity, Psychotherapy, and the Growth Mindset. Doidge introduces the work of Eric Kandel a psychiatrist and researcher at Columbia University. Kandel was the first to illustrate neuroplastic changes related to learning and ultimately how neurons alter their structure and reinforce their connections in response to learning. Doidge suggests that historically, psychotherapy, or the “talking cure” treatment for psychiatric symptoms, character problems, or behavior, was not well respected. To truly treat these problems, it was thought that psychoanalysis and psychotherapy were not efficacious and ‘serious’ treatments required a pharmaceutical approach. Kandel was one of the first researchers to put a scientist’s eye on what’s really happening in the psychotherapeutic approach and his research showed that psychotherapy created neuroplastic changes in the patient’s brain. 

“…it presumably does so through learning, by producing changes in gene expression that alter the strength of synaptic connections, and structural changes that alter the anatomical pattern of interconnections between nerve cells of the brain.”

This insight and evidence into neuroplastic changes via this psychotherapy or talking route supports how much mindset can shape our perception and in turn perhaps alter our actions. Pyschotherapy and learning ultimately alters the structures of neuronal networks in the brain and this evidence supports that anatomical changes occur when we practice and reinforce certain mindsets. Real change is happening when we reinforce certain thoughts or practice certain habits and Doidge’s research and evidence gives real weight to the importance of being cognizant of these practices. 


“Because the plastic brain can always allow brain functions that it has brought together to separate, a regression to barbarism is always possible, and civilization will always be a tenuous affair that must be taught in each generation and is always, at most, one generation deep”

“We must be learning if we are to feel fully alive, and when life, or love, becomes too predictable and it seems like there is little left to learn, we become restless – a protest, perhaps, of the plastic brain when it can no longer perform its essential task”

“Understanding this tortoise-and-hare effect can help us understand what we must do to truly master new skills. After a brief period of practice, as when we cram for a test, it is relatively easy to improve because we are likely strengthening existing synaptic connections. But we quickly forget what we’ve crammed – because these are easy come, easy go neuronal connections and are rapidly reversed. Maintaining improvement and making a skill permanent require the slow steady work that probably forms new connections.”

Similar Books/Further Reading

Growth Mindset by Carol Dweck

Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind by V.S. Ramachandran

The Brain’s Way of Healing by Norma Doidge

Previous Commonplace Book Entries

End of Night by Bogard

Being Wrong by Schulz

Mindset by Dweck

Mastermind by Konnikova

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