Scientists used to think that if the brain was damaged, that was it. The damaged part would likely not recover. Relatively recently, though, neuroplasticity is becoming more accepted in the mainstream.
Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to change. Brain functions (including related aspects of personality) are not set in stone. The brain can change, and if the brain can, that means you change too.
Studies are showing it.
Books are explaining it.
Here’s our top two picks (there are more excellent books out there, but we’ve read and reread these):
The Brain That Changes Itself and The Brain’s Way of Healing both by Norman Doidge, MD
In his first book, The Brain That Changes Itself, Norman Doidge introduced readers to the most important change in our understanding of the brain since the beginning of modern science: the discovery that the brain can change its own structure and function in response to mental experience—the phenomenon of neuroplasticity. Now, his revolutionary new book, The Brain’s Way of Healing, shows, for the first time, how the amazing process of neuroplastic healing really works.
For centuries it was believed that the price we paid for our brain’s complexity was that, compared with other organs, it was fixed and unregenerative—unable to recover mental abilities lost because of damage or disease. The Brain’s Way of Healing turns that belief on its head, as Doidge lucidly explains how the brain’s capacities are highly dynamic, and how its very sophistication makes possible a unique and gentle kind of healing. He describes natural, noninvasive avenues into the brain provided by the forms of energy around us—light, sound, vibration, movement—that can pass through our senses and our bodies to awaken the plastic brain’s own transformative capacities without surgery or medication and their unpleasant side effects or risks.
Using this more nuanced understanding of how our brains work, scientists and practitioners have learned how to use neuroplastic therapies to address many common conditions and to offer hope where prospects for healing were long denied. We see patients in whom years of chronic pain have been alleviated, and others who have recovered the ability not just to walk or talk but to live fully despite debilitating strokes, as well as cases of long-standing brain injuries cured or vastly improved. We meet children on the autistic spectrum or with learning disorders or attention deficit disorder who have used neuroplastic techniques to achieve normal lives, and sufferers who have seen symptoms of multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, and cerebral palsy radically diminished. And we learn how to vastly reduce the risk of dementia, or improve the brain’s performance and health, with simple approaches anyone can use.
Neuroplastic healing is truly one of the life-changing breakthroughs of modern science—“mind-bending, miracle-making, reality-busting stuff,” in the words of The New York Times, describing Doidge’s first book. Here, he uses both astonishing, moving human stories and reports from the frontiers of an exciting field in brain science, putting it all together to help us recognize how mind, brain, and body, as well as the energies around us, are all essential elements that combine in health and healing. This is a book with the potential to transform, to heal, and to offer hope.
One of the key indicators of successful talk therapy is positive change; we’d like to say that one of the key predictors of successful talk therapy is the patient’s belief that change is possible.
We know that the brains and brain functions of people with depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses may look different. But there is much chicken-and-egg debate about whether the brain differences cause the illness or whether the changes in the brain occur because of certain thought (and feeling) patterns. Experts disagree on this.
Believing that you can change not only the way you think (such as learning how to shift from depressive thoughts to more positive ones) but heal the way your brain operates (with a variety of different therapies ranging from talk therapy, sound therapy, and so on) harnesses your power of belief.
What about the disease model? This belief doesn’t negate the disease model of mental illness. While mental illness might require an immediate intervention (such as pharmaceuticals) to relieve serious symptoms, a dis-ease model is a useful perspective towards treatment. However, the disease model shouldn’t necessarily be used to label someone as sick beyond help.
That’s where the power of belief in change comes in. Even a basic understanding of the incredible ability of the brain’s ability to heal can offer hope to those suffering from mental illness. Patient education is an area that is sometimes limited, the willingness to try therapies that do have evidence backing them up but are not necessarily accepted. Let’s expand our options, whether we are professionals or clients.