Category Archives: The Brain That Changes Itself

The Brain That Changes Itself: stories of personal triumph from the frontiers of brain science by Norman Doidge

Head Cases: Stories of Brain Injury and Its Aftermath by Michael Paul Mason

Earlier this week I finished reading Head Cases: Stories of Brain Injury and Its Aftermath by Michael Paul Mason (click here to read all my entries about this book).

I was surprised by Mason’s references to Tibetan Buddhism and Zen Buddhism.

In the chapter titled Wood of the Suicides, Mason shares the tragic story of expressing his belief that suicide is okay with his friend John who subsequently hung himself.To cope with the suicide of his friend John, Mason visits a Buddhist monastery in upstate New York.

And on page 125 through 127, Mason summarizes the three death bardos described in the Tibetan Book of the Dead and on page 213 introduces some of the Zen koans complied by the Chinese monk Mumon in The Gateless Gate.

Mason uses his discussion of Zen koans to illustrate the power of mindfulness training through guided meditations as a treatment for brain injury patients.

He even uses a haiku — a kind of traditional Japanese poetry (俳句) — in his Introduction (page 6):

In this world
We walk on the roof of hell
Gazing at the flowers. *

While I appreciate reading these Buddhist and Eastern ideas, I felt they were out of place in this book.

Also, while The Hospital in the Desert, the Chapter on Balad Hospital in Iraq, was interesting I felt that it too seemed out of place and perhaps could be the start of another book entirely.

I was also disappointed by the depressing and severe tone of this book and I much preferred the hopeful tone and the hard science of Norman Doidge’s The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph From the Frontiers of Brain Science.

Both books use stories of real life brain injury cases and while Head Cases uses them to paint a bleak picture of traumatic brain injury (TBI) without teaching readers much science, The Brain That Changes Itself inspires readers with the astonishing findings of neuroplasticity research.

As I recall, Mason dedicates just one page to neuroplasticity (page 169) and manages to make it sound unscientific.

My recommendation? Stick to Oliver Sacks and Norman Doidge’s The Brain That Changes Itself. If you read Head Cases, be prepared for depressing hopeless stories; to be expected, I suppose, from a man who must feel constant frustration at the poor treatment available to patients with traumatic brain injuries.

* In case you’re curious about the original Japanese text by Kobayashi Issa (小林一茶), I looked it up:


And here’s the romanization (also not included in the book):

Yo no naka wa
Jigoku no ue no
Hanami kana


Books I Want to Purchase – Posted!

I used to spend an awful lot of money on books. And then I rediscovered my local public library. Now I try to borrow books at the library and read them before I purchase them. Try is in italics because I don’t have a 100% success rate.

I’ve been pretty pleased with myself since I imposed this policy on myself. The only books I’ve purchased since have been those from the Library Book Sale; I just couldn’t pass up on the opportunity to by almost new books at $1 or $2 each!

In any case, I’ll keep that static page updated but here is my list of books to purchase as of today:

As for other lists I keep, you can always click the Currently Reading tab to see what I’m reading right now, the Books I’ve Read tab to read what I have read, Books to Read link to read what books I own that I haven’t read, or the Favorite Books tab to read what books I adore!

The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph From the Frontiers of Brain Science by Norman Doidge

My favorite science book this year (so far) is Norman Doidge‘s The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph From the Frontiers of Brain Science.

If you enjoy reading Oliver Sacks (I’ve read Awakenings and An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales), you’ll probably be fascinated by The Brain That Changes Itself.

Click here to read an excerpt from the author’s website.

My freshman year at MIT, I took a few classes within the in Brain and Cognitive Sciences department at MIT (course 9 as we called it) and even considered majoring in BCS. So I have had a very basic education of the brain and have long been interested in brain science.

Anyway, I thought of The Brain That Changes Itself today when I read Nicholas Bakalar’s April 29, 2008 New York Times article “Memory Training Shown to Turn Up Brainpower.” The research described in Bakalar’s article confirms Doidge‘s book about the brain’s plasticity (neuroplasticity) — the theory that changes in the brain can occur as a result of experience, which challenges the old idea that we can’t change our brains (that we are “hard-wired”).

Memory Training Shown to Turn Up Brainpower” discusses a study that improved participants “working memory” (“the kind that allows memorization of a telephone number just long enough to dial it”) using various techniques and then tested the participant’s “fluid intelligence” (“the kind of mental ability that allows us to solve new problems without having any relevant previous experience,” which has been thought to be innate).

I suspect that scientists will continue to learn more about neuroplasticity and that in not so distant future, we’ll be able to cure strokes, paralysis and other “incurable” diseases/symptoms that stem from the brain.

By the way, I loved The Brain That Changes Itself and highly recommend it. It was one of those books that I could not put down. The stories of neuroplasticity will shock you, yet the stories are uplifting and inspirational.