Innovation/Global Crisis Blog

Rebuild Your Brain, Rewire Your Brain:  How “Neuroplasticity” Can Change Your Life

By Shlomo Maital


 Paul Bach-y-Rita



    From Norman Doidge, M.D., The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science.  (Penguin, U.S., 2007):

    …I met a scientist who enabled people who had been blind since birth to begin to see, another who enabled the deaf to hear; I spoke with people who had had strokes decades before and had been declared incurable, who were helped to recover with neuroplastic treatments; I met people whose learning disorders were cured and whose IQ’s were raised; I saw it is possible for 85-year-olds to function the way they did when they were 55; I saw people rewire their brains with their thoughts, to cure incurable obsessions and traumas….

    I teach innovation, and increasingly, personal creativity – how to build a personal creativity machine, a highly personal, individualized process, unique to each person, tailored to that person’s history and personality, that generates a torrent of world-changing ideas.  My “pitch” is that the brain is a muscle, a kind of bicep, and when you exercise it, when you constantly imagine new and different things, you greatly strengthen its abilities.  But I think I did not truly believe this until I read this book.

    Doidge recounts the story of Paul Bach-y-Rita, an American scholar of Catalon-Jewish background, who is a true scientist-practitioner – he does icon-smashing research as a scholar and at the same time applies what he learns as a rehabilitation physician.  His dogged persistence, against fierce opposition, stems in part from his youth.  He was temporarily dwarfed, when a rare form of chronic appendicitis halted his growth. In a tough Bronx high school, he was beaten and bullied daily.  (He was cured, after his appendix burst).  Later, when conventional brain scholars figuratively beat him up, he was immune.  They beat him up, because it was once “known” that certain parts of the brain controlled certain functions, and there was no ‘plasticity’ or flexibility.  Thanks in part to Bach-y-Rita, we know now this is false.  The brain is ‘neuroplastic’.  Here are several brief stories:

   *  Bach-y-Rita’s father had a stroke, had severe brain damage (as an autopsy showed after his death), yet was taught to crawl, then walk, speak, write….step by step, painfully, using exercises that simulated everyday actions.

  * Barbara Arrowsmith was severely learning-disabled.  She read a research paper by Mark Rosenzweig, U. of California (Berkeley), showing how rats living in stimulated environments had heavier brains with better blood supply than rats living in less stimulated environments.  A light bulb went on. She founded the famous Arrowsmith School in Toronto, where the learning disabled are taught to do strenuous mental exercises that greatly enhance their mental functioning.

   * Bach-y-Rita did a famous experiment, published in Nature in 1969, in which he enabled blind people blind from birth to see!  How?  A TV camera scanned the scene in front of the subject, as he/she turned a hand crank. The camera sent signals to a computer, which processed 400 vibrating stimulators arranged inside a chair back, resting against the subject’s skin.  The ‘stimulators’ were like pixels, vibrating for dark parts, still for light ones.  The six subjects in the experiment learned to recognize things like telephones, and even learned to recognize a picture of the supermodel Twiggy.

   * Rudiger Gamm is a young German of normal intelligence, who turned himself into an exceptional ‘calculating machine’, who can compute the ninth power or fifth root of numbers in seconds.  Starting at age 20, Gamm, who worked in a bank, began doing four hours of computational practice every day.  He now makes his living performing on TV.  A PET scan of his brain shows that when he calculates, he uses five more brain areas for calculating than “normal” people.  Specifically, his brain enlists ‘long term memory’ for calculations when you and I use only ‘short term memory’ brain space.

    I believe the evidence is beyond doubt.  With sufficient persistence and practice, you CAN greatly boost your brain’s abilities.  And indeed, your brain can preserve its own sanity.  When U.S.S.R. “refusenik” Nathan Sharansky was jailed for nine years, of which more than a year was spent in dark solitary confinement in a tiny cell, he preserved his sanity by playing chess against himself, remembering both black and white positions.  He claims this kept his sanity.  Later, he went to live in Israel, became a Minister, and invited Gary Kasparov to play chess against Cabinet members.  They all lost – except Sharansky, who managed a draw.