The Plasticity of the Human Brain

The plasticity of the human brain is currently the newest trend in the field of brain research and rehabilitation, examining the brain’s miraculous ability to build new neural paths, thus allowing us to continually change and develop almost at any age.

There is extensive literature on the subject: there are academic books which make the entire subject more accessible, and there are “Do it Yourself” books, offering various exercises and techniques for improving ones concentration, long and short memory, etc. After receiving many favoring recommendations, I have recently begun reading Dr. Norman Doidge’s The Brain That Changes.

The book, which opens with a forward by Dr. Oliver Sacks, reviews the prominent discoveries in the field of neurological sensory-motor research and rehabilitation from the last decades. The book addresses the history of neurological research; it illustrates a scholarly controversy—characterizing this field of research until recent years—that debates on whether the brain is capable of changing once development, during infancy and childhood, reaches its peak. Traditionally, it was assumed that the brain loses its plasticity once the critical period of its development ends. Consequently, it was concluded that, if damaged, new functions cannot become available or altered. Gradually, however, this approach towards neurological development changed. The book surveys the abundance of people who contributed to this substantial change of perspective; some of those are theoretical researchers while others implement, in a practical and praiseworthy manner, discoveries that significantly improve the daily function of their patients.

One of the more interesting discoveries—capable of explaining the nature of habits—is that the neurons in our brain are wired and connected to one another, co-creating electric pulses. The more they are wired to one another, the more new neural paths are created, changing the brain’s map. Apparently, the brain is hardly static, as it was once customary to presuppose. In fact, the brain’s map changes regularly according to our functioning. For example, when a person loses the ability to move a hand, following a stroke, it can be seen that the neural connections which are responsible for the operation of the hand begin to dissimilate. When this dissimilation was examined, it became evident that these very neurons were being used for other purposes, suggesting that the brain’s neurons are guided by the “use it or lose it” principle – no neurons are out of work. The implementation of these discoveries makes me reflect on the Feldenkrais method; I wonder what it will further enable us to discover about the brain’s operation, if, for example, we will be able to do an MRI following a Feldenkrais lesson.

One of the chapters in Doidge’s book illustrates a researcher named Ramachandran who examined the subject of phantom pains in amputees. Ramachandran focuses on the sensation of paralysis and stagnation in the amputated organ. He discovered that prior to the amputation of a limb, the patients’ limbs were often in cast or a splint for a certain period of time. Apparently, these patients’ brains recorded the memory of the immobility of the limb. Once the limb was amputated, and no sensory signals were received, the brain froze the immobilized sensation, as though leaving the amputated limb in eternal immobility. Ramachandran concluded that the feeling of paralysis in the amputated limb is caused by the amputation itself. He then asked whether it is possible to dismantle the learning patterns of a specific organ in our brain so that the phantom pain or paralysis will disappear.

One of Ramchandran’s case studies was an amputee patient whose arm was amputated after a terrible motorcycle accident, leaving him without any nerves from hand to spine and with tormenting phantom pains in his amputated elbow. This patient felt that if, somehow, he will be able to move his arm then the nightmare he was experiencing would be over.

Ramachandran came up with a brilliant solution: if phantom pains are based on an illusion, he postulated, perhaps it might be possible to fight them with an illusion, sending a message to the brain that the non-existing limb can in fact move. He then built a lidless box and divided it into two cubicles using a vertical mirror. A person whose left hand was amputated was asked to put the right hand in the right cubicle and imagine the left hand in the left cubicle. Since there was no lid, the person was able to bend forward and see the reflection of the right hand, appearing as though it is the person’s left hand.  

Once Ramchandram’s patient had placed his healthy hand and began, according to instructions, to move it forward and backward, he felt as though his left hand was moving too. For the first time since his accident, the feeling of paralysis and pain were gone. Yet as the patient had turned away from the reflection of his hand in the mirror, the tormenting feeling returned. After several weeks of practice, a new and permanent sensation of the moving left hand was formed, until, one day, the patient reported he no longer experienced any pains.

A researcher named Taub formed a unique rehabilitation program for patients with traumatic brain injuries or patients who suffered a stroke. This program relies on the discovery that the brain dissimilates the neural map of the injured limb that is no longer in use. Taub’s program mandates that the healthy limb will be splinted for several weeks; using the injured organ, the patient will then have to endure all sorts of daily and complex tasks. Notably, Taub soon discovered that the injured limb regained its functions rapidly. Based on the understanding that it is possible to build and rehabilitate brain functions by harnessing neurons and reconstructing neural paths, this method was also implemented to improve patients’ speech after traumatic brain injuries.

Yet another striking chapter in Doidge’s book regards the subject of visualization and imagination within the context of learning. This chapter undoubtedly validates one of the main principles of the Feldenkrais method: visualization of a certain function improves the neural brain map of the organs that are associated with it; it builds the motor function and rehabilitates it, much like an actual movement does. Indeed, recent studies prove that working with a patient’s imagination both improves and prepares the patient to the actual movement. Consequently, it only takes a short period of time to bring a patient’s function, through visualization, to the motion-level of a mobile person.

I highly recommend reading Dr. Norman Doidge’s book. Not only does it offer a comprehensive review of recent trends in Brain research, but, also, it is relevant for those who find that the possibility to learn, develop and change is curious and rather fascinating. Feldenkrais instructors worldwide can implement many of the suggestions which appear in Dr. Norman Doidge’s book and, therefore, they can drastically improve the lives of their patients

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