His first book popularized the idea that the brain is actually a dynamic, adaptive organ with incredible potential to change. Now, Dr. Norman Doidge is sharing incredible stories of recovery from the sci-fi-like frontier of energy-based therapies. Sarah MacWhirter talks with the author of The Brain’s Way of Healing to better understand the science of neuroplasticity
Chances are you know someone struggling with Parkinson’s disease, who lost their life to multiple sclerosis, who has been irreparably harmed by concussion or is trapped within the confines of autism spectrum disorder. Or perhaps you’ve watched someone lose their eyesight, seen the damaging effects of dyslexia, helped a child keep their ADHD under control. A new book by bestselling author Dr. Norman Doidge offers almost breathtaking hope to those wishing for a less invasive, virtually side-effect-free way to combat these and other neurological-based conditions.
It was Doidge, a psychiatrist and faculty member of both the University of Toronto and Columbia University’s Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research, who introduced the lay reader to the revolutionary idea that the brain is not fixed, that it is neuroplastic with the adaptive ability to reorganize itself, in The Brain That Changes Itself. In its wake, his inbox was flooded with e-mails from people debilitated by disease or injury who weren’t supposed to get better but did.
He set out to meet their doctors, to learn about the energy-based treatments they used to influence the brain, and found himself immersed in a world of light, sound and movement therapy.
He met the patients whose lives had been brought back from devastation through the application of these treatments: the blind man who could see, the severely autistic child who had learned to speak, the Parkinson’s patient whose recovery was so complete some questioned the original diagnosis.
In his latest work, The Brain’s Way of Healing: Remarkable Discoveries and Recoveries from the Frontiers of Neuroplasticity, Doidge shares their stories, explaining how light, sound, mild electrical stimulation and even something as simple as “controlled” walking has helped tame what he calls the noisy brain – one in which disease or damage has caused neurons to misfire. These interventions, influenced by Eastern ideas of energy but in accord with Western science, use energy to influence these misfiring neurons, much as a conductor encourages an unruly orchestra to play in sync. And when the noisy brain is resynchronized, a person’s function improves – significantly and swiftly.
We sat down with Doidge to discuss this energy-based approach to healing, and the shift it will require in how we think about disease and treatment.
Just how revolutionary is the work you’re describing?
We live in a time when machines are very important and impressive, and there is a tendency to project that onto the brain – and to think of it as a “hard-wired” computer. Of course this is a fabulous error because the brain is animate and machines are inanimate. … The brain can often heal and restore lost functions because it can form, unform and reform electrical circuits very rapidly in many cases. That’s not just something it can do, it’s what it’s frequently doing.
What is the role of energy in helping the brain adapt?
Inside the brain, although we see things and smell things and hear things, there are no images, there are no odours, there are no sounds. There’s just patterns of electrical energy. That’s how the nerves communicate.
Electrical signalling is the lingua franca, spoken by all the neurons throughout the brain. That’s how communication happens across vast expanses of cortical real estate.
Now, each of our senses converts one form of energy, and the information that energy carries, into another form of energy. The retina converts light energy into electrical energy signals and the cochlea converts sound energy into electrical signals and so on. And so our brains, through our senses and through our bodies, have a direct and natural access to the outside world. And just as thoughts can restructure brain circuitry, so can patterns of energy.
Can we use this approach to better deal with chronic pain?
When you feel pain you often can’t pay attention, you’re emotionally disregulated, maybe hypersensitive to light, can’t do complex visual problems. And that’s because there are areas of the brain that process both attention and pain, emotion and pain, and even visual images and pain. In chronic pain, the processing of pain hijacks those brain areas so you can’t perform the other functions. Because the brain is plastic, when it is stimulated in an ongoing way, say, by a pinched nerve, the pain map for the hurt area grows in size, and becomes better at processing pain, alas. Chronic pain is plasticity gone wild.
I describe cases where people, the moment they experience a twinge of pain, force themselves to visualize something. And if they were relentless and did this over a period of months, they slowly lowered their chronic pain. They liberated the hijacked parts of their brain maps from processing the pain signals so that they could process the other signals they were meant to process.
It’s possible to wean people off opioids, but only if you have something else to offer them, and that’s where neuroplastic interventions come in.
We all know how important walking is in terms of staving off Alzheimer’s and dementia. We know it, but are we taking it seriously enough? Should all Canadians have a dog?
Well then we’d have to deal with the cat people! It would probably help. … There are many reasons why we’re not taking that seriously. One of them has to do with the model of the brain. The mainstream view of Alzheimer’s has been focused on the chemistry and the genetics of it, but part of the neglect has to do with the fact that we have had a machine-like model of the brain – and the only change machines undergo is that they degenerate over time. Use it and lose it. The best that we thought we could do with this aging machine was to find some chemicals to prop up the failing system.
Discovering that the brain is neuroplastic means you have another avenue to cultivate brain circuitry, and what’s so good about walking is it triggers neurotrophic growth factors and some new neurons. Walking can be helpful for a number of degenerative conditions, as I show in the book, but it’s really about exercise in general (and it doesn’t have to be brutal cross-fitness).
What’s not in the book, what did you find that people wouldn’t be ready for?
They’re really not ready for it so I cannot answer that question … there are some things.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Dr. Norman Doidge documents numerous neuroplastic treatments in his new book. Here are four:
The conditions: Stroke, cerebral palsy, children born with brain damage or missing part of the brain.
- The treatment: Functional integration
lessons, in which a practitioner uses touch and tiny movements
to help a patient’s brain differentiate brain maps for
different parts of the body, and thereby gain or regain control
over those body parts.
- How it works: Many people with strokes or
cerebral palsy develop “spastic” rigid limbs that can’t move.
Without that movement, their sensory-motor brain maps wither
and lose refinement. Using touch therapy and very simple
movements to help create awareness of body parts, even many
severely disabled children can refine their maps and start
moving. In one case, a girl missing a third of her cerebellum –
expected to have profound retardation, be incontinent, immobile
and in need of lifelong institutionalization – who received
functional movement therapy is now in her early 30s with two
graduate degrees, a business and a happy marriage.
The condition: Parkinson’s disease. A movement disorder whose classic symptoms include shuffling gait, tremors, rigidity, difficulty initiating new movements and a weakened sense of balance.
- The treatment: Conscious walking, with
almost meditative-like concentration on each separate, minute
aspect of taking a step – the shifting of weight,
straightening, bending, launching, swinging, placing and
landing. This “conscious performance” is next applied to
actions affected by tremors (such as picking up a
- How it works: In Parkinson’s, a part of
the brain that normally makes complex movements automatic, the
substantia nigra, is not working well. With focused and
conscious thought about movement, the Parkinson’s patient
teaches another part of the brain to control action that was
previously controlled by the unconscious brain automatically.
By learning to perform an action in a slightly different way,
the patient is engaging a different, unaffected part of the
brain, in the frontal lobes. Once moving again, the patient, if
they walk and rest, can trigger neurotrophic growth factors
which, over time, contribute to the healing of brain
The conditions: Multiple sclerosis, stroke, Parkinson’s disease, traumatic brain injury.
- The treatment: Electrical stimulation of
the top of the tongue, using a Portable Neuromodulation
Stimulator (PoNS), to fire up the brain stem.
- How it works: The tongue, Doidge explains,
is arguably the royal road to the brain stem, an area hugely
responsible for regulating the autonomic nervous system,
breathing, much sensory input, even aspects of the immune
system. Like other parts of the brain, the stem can also suffer
from “noisy brain” with misfiring circuits and disregulated
functions. The PoNS gives enough stimulation to sensory neurons
to fire their own electrical signals to the brain stem and
allow neuromodulation to rapidly occur.
The conditions: Attention deficit disorder, autistic spectrum, sensory integration disorder.
- The treatment: Using music and voice with
changing frequencies to stimulate dormant brain
- How it works: When we hear a sound, the
ear converts the information in the patterns of sound energy
into patterns of electrical energy. Our neurons begin firing in
sync, and we can thus shape their circuitry. Many children with
autism are hypersensitive to sound because the normal
ear-to-brain circuit, which has an “auditory zoom” that allows
it to hone in on human speech frequencies and screen out low,
often threatening sounds, doesn’t work properly. Trapped in a
fight-or-flight state, they cover their ears, scream and can’t
engage socially. Listening therapy trains that “auditory zoom
circuit” so children can hear speech better and socially
Editor's note: An incorrect phone number was published for the Feldenkrais Centre in the original version of this article. This version has been corrected.