Our brains change – but our metaphors don’t

Our metaphors are powerful things. And it takes a long time to change them, when they have gotten fixed into our thinking.

So it is with the idea of the brain, and body, as machine, rather than a living system that can repair itself. (An idea that has also shaped our view of the natural world, as machine rather than ecosystem.)

So when I read Norman Doidge’s wonderfully readable books explaining neuroplasticity – the brain’s capacity to learn, and to repair itself – I thought for sure that the idea of the brain and body as machine would disappear for good.

Photo by Ivan Bertolazzi from Pexels

There are stories in his two books, The Brain That Changes Itself and The Brain’s Way of Healing, that are so extraordinary that I had to read them several times over to grasp the implications.

They were stories about how a damaged brain could restructure itself; about how the pain of ‘phantom limbs’ could be cured; about how older adults who suffered strokes could relearn the skills of movement and regain their cognitive skills; about how we could be influenced throughout our life by memories that were so early that they didn’t register in our minds as stories; about how those considered to be learning-disabled could indeed learn (and by extension, how older adults could keep our brains nimble); and, most amazing of all to me, that a person could be born with part of their physical brain missing and still function well as adults.

The books popped to mind the other day when I read a story in the Washington Post about a young college athlete who had grown up favouring the left hand side of his body, but had actually suffered a stroke as a newborn and lost large parts of his brain as a result. It took a long time for the cause of the weakness in his right side to be properly diagnosed, and the doctor who did so was surprised to find that the patient was a well functioning athlete. He had thought that the patient would be in a wheelchair and getting sustenance through a feeding tube.

It is an amazing story, and the young man’s achievements are phenomenal, and a tribute to him and his family. But it puzzled me that the neuroplasticity findings that Dr. Doidge was talking about, didn’t seem to have percolated into the medical establishment to the extent I thought they would have done. The young man had a thick medical record by the time the actual problem was finally diagnosed.

And then, searching on Google for the exact titles of Dr. Doidge’s books for this post, I came across a fascinating Big Tech podcast in which he talks more about neuroplasticity – and how it can have effects that may not always be positive. In a time when we are all spending so much time in front of screens and communicating via social media and Zoom, it is truly worthwhile listening to the podcast.

“Many unlocked mysteries remain about the workings of the human brain. Neuroscientists are making discoveries that are helping us to better understand the brain and correct preconceived notions about how it works,” the pod introduction says. “With the dawn of the information age, the brain’s processing was often compared to that of a computer. But the problem with this analogy is that it suggested the human brain was hard-wired, able to work in one particular way only, much as if it were a computer chip, and which, if damaged, could not reroute itself or restore function to a damaged pathway.”

On the blog, Taylor Owen talks with Dr. Doidge about the brain’s potential to heal. But they also talk about the darker side of neuroplasticity –  that our brains adapt to negative influences as well as positive ones. “Today, our time spent in front of a screen and how we interact with technology are having significant impacts on our brains, and those of our children, affecting attention span, memory and recall, and behaviour. And all of these changes have societal implications.”

In the podcast, Dr. Doidge also talks about the impact of the pandemic on work and our attitudes about work. It is truly a fascinating discussion all round. (I also discovered, in researching this post, that Dr. Doidge has been writing columns on the pandemic in Tablet magazine, and plan to read my way through them.)


The Brain Is Not a Computer. Big Tech, Jan. 20, 2022.

A newborn lost large parts of his brain. Today, he’s an athletic college grad. Washington Post, Jan. 20, 2022

Norman Doidge website.

Norman Doidge columns in Tablet magazine.