Book: The Brain that Changes Itself

Yes, I read a photocopied version of this book. This is commonplace in China.

Modern update to Sigmund Freud’s
The Interpretation of Dreams

426 pages, ★★★★★

I’ve changed many times. At 17, I used to drive at 130 mph and get searched by police for “looking suspicious” (a vicious cycle). At 19, I became a Cambridge student, at 21 became a raving Communist, and just one year later became an ideological capitalist. Now, at 23, I’m studying Chinese and Buddhism at home with Silver Needle Pekoe tea, or as the Buddhists would say, “I’ve stolen my monkey brain”. I recommend it.

I can therefore connect easily with the thesis of this book: that the brain is plastic.

Reading neuroscience usually brings one of two outcomes: I either self-diagnose a plethora of conditions (this occurs when the descriptions are flattering, such as the OCD in Steve Jobs or the Aspergers’ Syndrome in The Essential Difference); or I am disgusted by the patients described and thus feel more normal than ever. This book is certainly the latter.

The book is enlightening throughout. Here are some highlights:

  • new brain theory (plasticity)
  • a theory of autism (BDNF, white noise)
  • support for Buddhist teachings
  • a theory of love (oxytocin, memory loss)
  • insights into depression (hypothalamus shrinkage)

The Brain that Changes Itself is mostly an enlightening (rather than disturbing) read. It makes advances on many books I’ve read. It uses scientific animal models and human case studies to ‘prove’ the new, emerging theory of brain science: that the brain is plastic.

The Brain that Changes Itself is more insightful on autism and Aspergers’ Syndrome than Simon Baron-Cohen’s The Essential Difference. Improper release of BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor); and excessive white noise during brain development could cause autism. This was even proven using rats! This book stops short of explicitly stating a cure for autism, but the reader can infer a cure from the information given in this book. The author doesn’t write the cure due to its “capability for misuse”. You’ll have to decode it for yourselves, which is infinitely more exciting.

The Brain that Changes Itself usually agrees with Buddhist teachings. On page 171, we see a direct parallel with The Heart of Buddha’s Teaching with, “Buddhists will observe the effects of anger, rather than the cause, and therefore separate themselves from it”. Both books tell us how learning only arises from “focussing”, “being present” and giving “undivided attention”. (The “deliberate practice” in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers is essentially the same phenomenon.) Buddhism has been teaching us this for 2,600 years.

Happiness by Buddhist monk Mathieu Ricard tells us that “love wipes out previous memories, especially bad ones”. The Brain that Changes Itself uses science to tell us exactly how this happens. Oxytocin is released when we fall in love, which makes us feel warm and trusting of our new partner. Since falling in love requires simultaneously “falling out of love” with previous partners, oxytocin also wipes parts of our memory. This has been proven using studies in using rats.

Finally, The Brain that Changes Itself tells us that long-term depression was found to cause hypothalamus shrinkage, especially in the “critical period” of brain development. Short-term depression had almost no effect on hypothalamus size. The hypothalamus shrinks to decrease our sensitivity to the negative effects around us. The result is, unfortunately, a desensitisation of pleasure as well as pain. Schizophrenia, ADHD and bipolar disorder are all implicated.

This book lends itself very well to being taught in schools. Each chapter would take one or two lessons, and the students can simulate the human and animal experiments with each other in class. ★★★★★

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