The Brain's Way of Healing
– by Norman Doidge M.D. (Viking 2015)
Reviewed by Jackie Gardner-Nix
This is a second book from Doidge, his first book: a best seller, was “The Brain that Changes Itself”. Doidge is a psychiatrist and manages to recount patient stories which suggest amazing cure or control over progression of their diseases, and yet he is able to back the stories with scientific fact.
The first chapter is about curing pain. Yes, curing chronic pain. His subject is a chronic pain specialist who works out of a Pain Centre in California who, himself suffered intractable severe neck pain after a skiing accident 13 years before. Spreading and becoming more intense, the pain was threatening his livelihood. He began to study the brain maps of where pain registers in the brain on becoming chronic, and he visualized these areas intently many times a day for months to imagine reducing the scope of the neurons participating in registering his pain. In other words he used guided imagery, a bit more accurately than we do in our courses, focusing in on where he knew areas of the brain register chronic pain. With great perseverance—he called it relentlessness- and determination, he got his pain to zero in a year and it has not returned.
Only some of his patients were able to do the same with his coaching. He still uses conventional pain interventions in his Pain Centre, and mindfulness wasn’t mentioned, though he was clearly using imagery to change his brain pathways—the neurons that fire together wire together; the neurons which fire apart wire apart. That’s what happens when we change our behaviours and take more control of our thoughts—the neuroplasticity of the brain.
Other chapters deal with other diseases such as Parkinson’s, where an amazing dedication to intense, relentless exercise reduced the progression of the symptoms of Parkinson’s in a South African man who had had it diagnosed in his 30s and was now late 70s.
The extraordinary people who turned back their diseases in almost miraculous ways had this relentlessness in common. They were the “Olympic athletes” of their disabilities, and amazing examples of not letting their brain have a “mind of its own”, the “default” state most of our minds are in before we discover Mindfulness.
Doidge also has some technology surprises in his book where function was being restored by light therapy or electrically delivered energy therapy.
We may not all be able to aspire to be the Olympic athletes of our various disabilities, Nevertheless, those who can, act as a beacon to show what’s possible: that the brain can change in ways which heal the body, and that we can all achieve some of that when given the tools. Such as Mindfulness.