Neuroplasticity and Chronic Pain: A Book Review of “The Brain’s Way of Healing”

The Brain's Way of Healing

The Brain’s Way of Healing is a book about neuroplasticity and healing written by Norman Doidge.

The premise of his book rests on our new understanding of the brain. For many years, scientists thought that the brain was a stable and unchanging organ. Hundreds of years of medical treatments were based on this belief, leaving little hope for those who suffered from injury or illness related to the brain and nervous system.

But the brain is not unchanging; quite the opposite, it is malleable and able to be transformed. This quality of the brain that allows it to change and form new networks is called neuroplasticity, defined by Doidge as “the property of the brain that enables it to change its own structure and functioning in response to activity and mental experience” (p. xiii).

Throughout the book, Doidge provides examples of how scientists and researchers have channeled the brain’s neuroplasticity to form new connections within the brain, bringing about surprising and unexpected healing for diseases as diverse as chronic pain, ADHD, autism, MS, and Parkinson’s disease.

In Doidge’s own words, the purpose of the book is to “show how it is possible to use these different forms of energy [light, sound, vibration, motion, mental experience] to modify the patterns of the brain’s electrical signals and then its structure.”

Each chapter focuses on stories of real people who changed their lives and bodies forever by using techniques based on the brain’s ability to change its structure, leading to changes in the body’s ability to function.

Typically, when I hear stories of someone healing their chronic pain, I feel extremely skeptical. My first response is to write them off and think they were an anomaly, exaggerating, or extremely lucky.

But the stories of healing told in this book felt much different than other stories of healing I have encountered. The reason for this is that for each story of healing, Doidge explains in great detail the neuroscience behind the healing and the way the brain was changed to lead to so much improvement. In addition, throughout the book, he acknowledges the great effort and time that must be put into these various techniques for healing to begin and be sustained.

Each chapter focuses on different forms of energy used for healing and different health conditions that tend to respond to specific techniques. Although I found the entire book fascinating, the information most relevant to chronic pain is found in the first few chapters of the book. The first chapter reveals the work of Michael Moskowitz, a doctor who used the concept of plasticity to heal his own chronic neck pain. I will go into more detail about this one example to give you an idea of the content of the book.

The basis of using neuroplasticity to bring about healing for chronic pain rests in changing the brain’s electrical signals and structure through the input of energy so that it will function in new ways, rewiring new connections that don’t recognize the pain signals that have become fixed in the brain.

So, what does it mean exactly to rewire new connections? A basic biology lesson helps us out.

The brain is made up of cells called neurons, which are composed of an axon on one end, a cell body in the middle, and dendrites on the other end. Neurons connect with one another where the axon of one neuron meets the dendrite of another neuron. Between the axon and dendrite is a gap called a synapse that is bridged by chemical messengers called neurotransmitters that are passed between neurons. Electrical impulses serve as the trigger to release neurotransmitters between neurons.

It is these electrical impulses that can be altered by forms of energy such as light and mental imagery. These electrical impulses in the brain can either be inhibitory or excitatory – either stopping or encouraging the transmission of neurotransmitters.

The term “rewiring” is talking about this process in which “alterations occur at the synapse, strengthening and increasing or weakening and decreasing the number of connections between neurons. One of the core laws of neuroplasticity is that neurons that fire together wire together, meaning that repeated mental experience leads to structural changes in the brain neurons that process that experience, making the synaptic connections between those neurons stronger” (p. 7).

This means that when we learn something and practice it repeatedly, the connection between neurons is going to become stronger. Unfortunately, this learning does not just apply to math or reading, but can also apply to the “learning” and strengthening of chronic pain pathways.

The good news is that these pathways can be unlearned and rewired so that new pathways are formed. The chronic pain pathways can be unlearned, meaning the connection between neurons in the pain pathway is decreased, and pathways that lead to health can be learned, meaning these connections are increased.

It is those forms of energy that were discussed at the beginning that can be used to rewire these connections by how they create inhibitory or excitatory electrical impulses. The specific forms of energy that Moskowitz uses to heal his chronic pain in the first chapter is through visualization and “flooding” of the areas of the brain that process pain with other stimuli.

In terms of visualization, Moskowitz began imagining a picture of what a brain experiencing chronic pain looks like (based on fMRI images). fMRI images show specific areas of the brain that light up during the experience of chronic pain. He would imagine these areas that light up shrinking every time he experienced the pain. Although fleshing out the details of this visualization process is beyond the scope of this article, you can read about it in more detail at Markowitz’s website.

Flooding his brain with alternative stimuli was based on his understanding of the functions of each area of the brain. He (1) determined which major areas of the brain processed pain (2) determined what mental functions besides processing pain these parts of the brain were in charge of and (3) began to force his brain to process these other functions. Since the brain can’t effectively process both the pain and employ these other mental functions at the same time, he began flooding the pain out through large quantities of other stimuli. To  read more about this process of flooding the brain and what stimuli are effective, check out this lesson.

By using these techniques consistently over long periods of time, Moskowitz was able to get his disabling chronic pain under control.

Overall the book was a fascinating read. In most instances the book did not give enough information to actually carry out the techniques and exercises it recommended. I learned about the importance of getting enough sunlight, the healing benefits of music, and the process of careful mindfulness of movement to improve mobility. I learned about the Feldenkrais technique to improve mobility, which seems applicable to chronic pain, but would not be able to practice it based on just the descriptions in the book. Some of the techniques discussed require special devices and could not be carried out at home, but could point people towards potential new treatments.

For the most part, the book functioned as an introduction to techniques that I would like to research and try in the future. I highly recommend the book, as I left with a sense of motivation that change and healing is possible. I left with a better understanding of my brain and nervous system and an understanding of the science behind some forms of healing that would have made me skeptical in the past but I now understand to be true and backed by science. Over the next few weeks I plan to research some of these strategies more so that I can begin to put them into practice.

*I am in the process of gathering information regarding Moskowtiz’s visualization and flooding techniques to begin practicing them myself. However, I know I will need motivation and support to keep with them for the 6 weeks required to begin to notice any improvement. Because of that I plan to start a 6 week visualization accountability group on facebook starting sometime in March. I will have more information to come on that, but let me know if you are interested, and I will make sure that  you can be a part of it. I plan to keep the group small to encourage participation from all members. 

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    1. I’m excited to look into it more. I need something to keep me accountable, so hopefully planning to post on the blog about it will do that!

    1. You should definitely read it! I think you would really like it based on the resources I’ve seen you recommend on your blog.

  1. Hi Esther, you really sent me on a nerdy search yesterday afternoon after reading your post lol

    I got plenty of research if you want to know, give me a shout.

    Yes, I’d like to try Moskowtiz’s visualization and flooding techniques with you. Just let me know. You have my e-mail through this comment or is it still private to you even if if it’s your website? I stay off Facebook alerts because they are soooo overwhelming and plentiful now x_x I will get an e-mail notification of replies on this though.

    1. Oh yes I’m definitely interested in knowing about what you have researched! Sorry I am just getting back to you – I was a bit behind on comments. I would love for you to be a part of trying these things with me. I’ll make sure to send you an email or message once I have the group up – maybe in a week or so. A place for us to all learn together.

      1. Hi Esther, I was worried you’d get our snow but it seems you only got rain down south. This has been our only real big snowfall this year. Still hope driving in the rain did not cause any problems for you.

        Had very challenging days (migraines, fatigue, now hubby has a cold and I’m nursing him while praying not to catch it!) but spent my time in bed listening to Doidge’s audiobook that I found through our library 🙂 Long book but worth it.
        I also borrowed another shorter book “A Very Short Tour of the Mind: 21 Short Walks Around the Human Brain” which is only 2 hours and provides important groundwork info about how the brain works. In my case, it was consolidation, refreshing info and some new data as fatigue does affect my memory retention but it linked to many similar subjects.

        Sounds like what I was doing back when my main problem was pain and I was home-bound instead of working was neuroplasticity. I used to have a minimum of 7/10 pain at rest that would easily jump to 8 or 9 with activity over the day. Also, slowly letting go of unhelpful medication (that did increase rebound migraines and were not helping the pain), learning to breathe, concentrating on conscious muscle movement (a lot like Pepper for Parkinson’s Disease since fatigue and pain caused a lot of imbalance and tremors and jerks), and consciously focusing on the positive outcome made me walk further and further everyday. This took months and months, each activity having to be a willing effort and it still is when the pain is there. Well, it always is with fatigue but at least the pain is usually 3/10 overall at rest. So yes, huge commitment but what else is there to do? Each time you get up, you make a huge effort normal people can’t relate to unless you tell them: “Imagine being in your warm comfy bed and you jump out in the cold at 3 am in the morning willingly – and not just to pee and go back in bed right away”. That gets their attention ; ) And each time you do something, every single thing you do in life feels like that.

        I still have to do conscious tremor-control when I’m tired and need to hold my fork straight so many things do resonate with my experience. I have to stop talking if that happens. So even though the chapters were about Parkinson I am glad I listened to them carefully because it did relate to my own experience a lot.

        So I’ll keep listening to the book, I have it for 2 more weeks. It’s a long one but I’m often in bed these days. I’ll wait to hear from you. I’m already doing more stress-relief again since my irregular heart beats have finally stopped when I do controlled breathing techniques 😀 Such a good news!! I’ll enjoy as long as it lasts!
        Better go see hubby so he doesn’t overdo it.

        1. Good to hear from you Claudia. No snow down here right now, but we are supposed to get a bit on Friday I heard. Hopefully it doesn’t affect my work.

          That’s exciting that you got the book! I just added you to the visualization group. If you changed your mind, you can always just leave, but I thought that would be the easiest. I’m excited to hear more about what you are researching, and perhaps how we can incorporate it into the group.

  2. Thank you so much for sharing your findings! Excellent review! As you know, I’m a believer in vizualization for chronic pain as a coping mechanism and feel it has been transformative for me on my journey. Though it has not transformed my pain, it has transformed my perspective, and that is healing. Neuroplasticity always fascinates me. Since chronic pain changes the brain, there is so much to learn in this field. I’m thankful that this doctor is sharing his findings and that you are sharing your take on his work!

    1. It’s so helpful and encouraging to hear directly from you how visualization has really helped you. Thanks for sharing!

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