"The brain Merzenich describes is not an inanimate vessel that we fill; rather it is more like a living creature with an appetite, one that can grow and change itself with proper nourishment and exercise."
Dr. Paul Bach-y-Rita’s father, Pedro Bach-y-Rita, suffered a disabling stroke at age sixty-five in 1959.
Not only did the stroke paralyze his face and half of his body, but he was also unable to speak. Doctors at the time gave no hope of recovery, and he was told that he would be institutionalized. The belief was that once a part of your brain was damaged, there was no way it could be healed; hence, no chance of recovery.
Yet, after one full year of intense rehabilitation at home with his son George, Pedro’s “recovery was complete” and he was able to return to his profession as a teacher, and continue hiking and traveling as he did before.
How was this possible?
“I decided that instead of teaching my father to walk, I was going to teach him first to crawl. I said, ‘You started off crawling, you are going to have to crawl for a while.’ We got kneepads for him. At first we held him on all fours, but his arms and legs didn’t hold him very well, so it was a struggle.”
What’s more, is that after Pedro passed away seven years later, an autopsy of his brain revealed that “he had a huge lesion from his stroke and that it had never healed, even though he recovered all of those functions”. And the lesion was mainly in “the brain stem – the part of the brain closest to the spinal cord – and that other major brain centers in the cortex that control movement had been destroyed by the stroke as well.”
So, how, if all of this damage still existed, was Pedro able to recover?
The answer, as Norman Doidge explains in The Brain That Changes Itself, is that the human brain is much more capable than we believe it to be; that, “the brain can change its own structure and function through thought and activity.”
That is, the brain – your brain – can change itself.
The Big Idea
Your Brain Can Change Itself
"We are all born with a far more adaptable, all-purpose, opportunistic brain than we have understood… The brain is a far more open system than we ever imagined, and nature has gone very far to help us perceive and take in the world around us. It has given us a brain that survives in a changing world by changing itself."
Pedro’s recovery wasn’t a result of healing the existing lesion in the brain.
Rather, it was through the intense rehabilitation exercises he did with his son (learning how to crawl again beside a wall, holding washing pots with his good hand and making his weak hand go round and round, etc.) that he was able to recover by essentially rewiring his brain.
This process, or property, of rewiring your brain is known as “neuroplasticity”.
So how does it work?
Consider that you are booking a flight from Vancouver, BC to London, England and you always take a direct flight to minimize travel time. Now let’s say that for some reason that route is no longer available.
That route has had a “stroke”, so you’re no longer able to fly directly to London.
You now have a couple options. You can either a) sit at home and do nothing, or b) look at the other routes available, which in this case would be Vancouver, BC to Calgary, AB to London, England, or Vancouver, BC to Toronto, ON to London, England.
The point is, is that you now have to choose a different route to reach your destination. And even though you’re not used to it, you now need to get used to it because there is no other option. And as you take this route more and more, you’ll eventually get accustomed to it.
This is essentially what happened with Pedro. As he learned how to walk and talk again, his brain made different neural connections with different parts of his brain and built a new “route” in accomplishing the task at hand.
And there were two key factors that supported the rewiring of his brain. In fact, these two factors are essential for brain development.
You Must Learn A New Skill
"In order to keep the brain fit, we must learn something new, rather than simply replaying already-mastered skills."
When it comes to rewiring your brain, it’s essential that you are truly learning a new skill; not something you are already fairly good at. And there are two principles to keep in mind:
1. Focus: Make sure the new skill requires focused attention.
2. Slow & Steady: Understand that lasting change won’t happen overnight. It takes time.
For example, I’ve never played the piano, so it is a skill that would definitely require focused attention on my part if I wanted to add that to my skillset. I would have to practice consistently. And following the Slow & Steady principle, I would have to practice playing the piano for more than a few days or couple weeks in order to not only enhance my skill, but also develop my brain (which in turn enhances my skill).
So in Pedro’s case, not only was he required to focus intently (i.e. learning how to crawl first, then walk), but he had to practice this day-in, and day-out, for one year.
“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,” writes Doidge. “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.”
As You Think, You Are
"We can change our brain anatomy simply by using our imaginations."
The concept or idea of visualization isn’t new. In fact, it’s a practice that’s at the heart of most personal development practices (i.e. visualize each and every detail, including the obstacles you face, etc.)
What’s remarkable, though, is just how much of an impact visualization and imagination alone can have on the physical transformation of our brains.
Doidge explains one case study in particular where two groups of people, who had never played the piano, were taught a “sequence of notes, showing them which fingers to move and letting them hear the notes as they were played. Then members of one group, the ‘mental practice’ group, sat in front of an electric piano keyboard, two hours a day, for five days, and imagined both playing the sequence and hearing it. A second ‘physical practice’ group actually played the music for two hours a day for five days.”
What’s remarkable is that in the before and after brain measurements and tests done, “both groups learned to play the sequence, and both showed similar brain map changes.”
Now, Doidge does point out that “the level of improvement at five days in the mental practice group, however substantial, was not as great as in those who did physical practice”, so you still need to incorporate physical practice to maximize your skill set.
But it’s clear that your mental practice is just as important as your physical practice. And in Pedro’s case, he most likely was using his imagination as he continued his daily rehabilitation exercises.
Pedro’s story is just one of many presented in The Brain That Changes Itself that show, and remind us, of the true potential we all have hidden within us. Doidge essentially “lifts the hood” for us as he breaks down the inner workings of our brain as we go through our daily actions, and how they affect the long term health of our brain, and life. And it’s important for us to understand both the positive, and negative, implications this can have.