Brain plasticity

Today’s Big Ideas podcast carried a lecture by Norman Doidge on neuroplasticity, the recently-discovered ability of the brain to rewire itself. Doidge relates several amazing stories of people who have recovered from severe strokes or other brain injuries by developing detours around the damaged areas. Hearing of people who have had the persistence to re-learn how to use an arm or leg inspires me to not give up so easily when I face comparatively trivial challenges.

Doidge gives several explanations for why it has taken so long to discover neuroplasticity. Until very recently, scientific orthodoxy has held that neuroplasticity is impossible. Patients were told they’d never be able, for example, to use their left arm again. This became a self-fulfilling prognosis as most patients would not work to do that they were told would be impossible. But what about patients who ignored medical advice and were able to recover lost functionality? Why did that not persuade scientists that neuroplasticity was possible? The patient’s recovery was interpreted as evidence that the brain damage must not have been as extensive as initially believed, since the alternative was known to be impossible.