Posts Tagged ‘norman-doidge’

Doidge – Part 3 – The Science of Brain Training

Friday, November 21st, 2008
Norman Doidge: The Brain That Changes Itself

Norman Doidge: The Brain That Changes Itself

(This post is adapted from an entry on our sister blog at

In Chapter three of his book, Doidge focuses on the remarkable career and contributions to the understanding of brain science of Michael Merzenich , a scientist driven by the desire to solve real world problems (like understanding autism) and not content to leave the solutions to others. With Merzenich, a practical solution is part of the scientific challenge.

This section of the book is a must-read for anyone interested in the science behind brain plasticity, brain training, learning and learning dysfunctions, autism, and brain aging. But I will highlight some of the particularly luminous thoughts:

Merzenich: The brain is “like a living creature with an appetite” what we feed it to some extent determines how it thrives. When we engage our brains it matters what we do with them.

Shifting brain maps: By microscopic mapping of the surface of the brain, Merzenich showed that the areas of the brain controlling and responding to things like touch shifted over time depending upon what the brain needed to do with them. (Use two fingers together all the time, the brain maps for those two fingers become merged.)

Competitive plasticity: The brain is constantly assessing how important it is to allocate space to certain skills and functions. The more we demand of a certain skill (like playing the piano) the more space and brain power it gets. The less we use a certain function or skill, the more it loses its brain real estate to other functions.

The role of close attention in plastic change: Merzenich found that repetition alone isn’t enough for plastic change. When monkeys in his research performed tasks repeatedly their brain maps changed, but only if they paid close attention to the task did the changes hold long term. (This is a underpinning tenet to the Brain Fitness Pro training exercise and crops up on the training blog all the time.)

Why children learn so easily… and why adults don’t. Brain-derived neurotrophic factor or BDNF plays a critical role in triggering the brain’s ability to absorb and learn. In children during the critical period of learning the child’s body releases a lot of BDNF, keeping the brain constantly stimulated to absorb new information. Children’s brains are engaged and absorbent throughout this period. But at the end of the critical period, the body releases a whole lot more BDNF, a trigger that effectively shuts down the critical period and puts an end to this process.

It may seem odd that we’re designed to stop learning effortlessly past a certain point, but it would be difficult to function as an adult if we were constantly distracted and unable to determine priorities and accumulate the wisdom of trial and error.

Restimulating plasticity in adults: As Doidge puts it, “We rarely engage in tasks in which we must focus our attention as closely as we did when we were younger.” Merzenich found that the brain’s ability to grow new nerve cells, forge plastic change, and learn new skills wasn’t completely shut off in adults, but required certain conditions to be opened up again. The first condition is highly focused attention. The second is reward or satisfaction, which can come from novelty, pleasure, or a sense of achievement. (Again, these are foundations of the Brain Fitness Pro design.)

In Merzenich’s own words: “Everything that you can see happen in a young brain can happen in an older brain.”

This phase of Merzenich’s career lead him to help found Posit Science, a company that publishes brain training software to help children with learning disabilities and to provide brain training for older people who are losing or don’t want to lose memory function or mental sharpness as they age.

(As I’ve written elsewhere, Posit Science seems to have great products, but they’re unfortunately very expensive, and prohibitively expensive in many situations that could really help people. A full program for an adult costs over $600. That’s why I believe that Brain Fitness Pro should remain affordable, in order to bring these kinds of benefits to those who need them but just don’t have hundreds of dollars to spend.)

Related posts:

Building a Better Brain — in the second case study Doidge focuses on Barbara Arrowsmith Young’s discovery that learning disabilities can be mitigated by training the weaker areas of the brain to be stronger.

Part 2 – Rewiring balance — Doidge explores the incredible contributions of Michael Merzenich (the founder of Posit Science).

Norman Doidge – Building A Better Brain

Sunday, September 28th, 2008

Barbara Arrowsmith Young

I found Chapter 2 of Doidge’s book particularly poignant. In ‘Building Herself A Better Brain’ Doidge describes the life of Barbara Arrowsmith Young, who, despite her particularly strong visual and auditory memory, suffered huge deficits in certain brain functions as a child and young woman. She couldn’t process even fairly simple relational concepts without extraordinary effort, making quantitative work extremely challenging.

Anyone familiar with the diagnosis of learning disabilities will recognize the sense of demoralization that accompanies the label. Barbara’s case was an extreme example.

When a child or young adult is diagnosed with a learning disability, he or she is typically provided with a diagnosis that allows them or recommends for them some compensations in their studies — extra time on tests for instance. These compensations favor the stronger aspects of their mental capacities and give leeway to the weaker.

By a winding path at 28 Barbara Arrowsmith Young came across the work of Mark Rosenzweig of the University of Berkeley. Rosenzweig had compared the brains of rats raised in stimulating and non-stimulating environments and found that those raised with stimulation had formed far more neurotransmitters and were bigger and healthier. This gave Barbara the idea that she might help herself by working the weaker areas of her brain rather than allowing for them.

Norman Doidge: The Brain That Changes Itself

Norman Doidge: The Brain That Changes Itself

With countless hours of arduous self-designed training Barbara eventually trained and strengthened her brain to perform more effectively, countering her deficits until they disappeared. She co-founded the Arrowsmith School in Toronto, helping children with learning disabilities to reverse those disabilities with appropriate training.

This is how Doidge sums up the lesson of Barbara’s case:

“Clearly many children would benefit from a brain-area-based assessment to identify their weakened functions and a program to strengthen them–a far more productive approach than tuturing that simply repeats a lesson and leads to endless frustration.”

Hear, hear.

Related Post:

Rewiring the brain In the first chapter of Doidge’s book he describes research and rehabilitation that shows how adaptible the brain is when “rewired”