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.
Want to stay connected with Life in Slow Motion? Click here to Follow Life in Slow Motion on Facebook for blog posts and other original content.