Home All (Book Review) The Brain that Changes Itself

(Book Review) The Brain that Changes Itself

written by Denise Clegg 20 September 2008

Denise Clegg, MAPP 08, is Program Officer for the Positive Neuroscience project at the University of Pennsylvania Positive Psychology Center. She also serves as a facilitator for the Penn Resilience Program and is a daily editor for Positive Psychology News Daily.

Denise writes on the 20th of each month, and her articles are here.

Editor’s Note:  We are delighted to welcome Denise Clegg with her first article.  Denise’s future articles will appear on the 20th of each month.

Your brain has a mind of its own – a cartographer. Every action, thought, memory, habit, talent, and trouble is recorded in the firing pattern of neural networks in your brain. Why is a bad habit so hard to break? Why is the electric slide effortless for some and befuddling to others, no matter how hot the disco?

Norman Doidge

Norman Doidge

Dr. Norman Doidge’s book The Brain that Changes Itself chronicles the academic history of neuroplasticity (the brain changing itself) and other recent developments in neuroscience from his perspective as a psychiatrist and researcher. Doidge is a clear and engaging writer, weaving together research, narrative, and interviews with leading neuroscientists including Paul Bach-y-Rita, Michael Merzenich, and V.S. Ramachandran.

BOOK REVIEW: The Brain that Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science by Norman Doidge (Penguin Books, 2007).

Like a bad habit or the electric slide, each moment is continually inscribed and revived by the cartographer of the mind, and each moment’s patterns and associations as well. And much like conventional cartography, our maps record not only what was once navigated, but also influence which path will likely be charted for new explorations. These neurochemical firing patterns are commonly called brain maps. They are both shaped by and creators of habit, and can be radically transformed by a range of conditions including love and trauma. When you change, they change, and this growth and flexibility is called neuroplasticity.

A core theme of Doidge’s book is how and when positive change and healing manifest in brain and behavior. In the book, Michael Merzenich notes, “Practicing a new skill, under the right conditions, can change hundreds of millions and possibly billions of the connections between the nerve cells in our brain maps” (p. 47). This is precisely the change practitioners work for with positive interventions and exercises.

What conditions facilitate this kind of change? This book offers an inspiring introduction to the answers. Positive Psychology practitioners will be happy to learn that positive emotions are particularly conducive to neural plasticity, and will find correlations between the science of positive interventions and the science of mind presented here. For example, each of the following can nurture plasticity:

  • Love, bonding, pleasure, and reward
  • Habit and practice
  • Vision, imagery, imagination
  • Motivation and stimulation
  • Focus, restriction and self-regulation

Positive affect engages the pleasure and reward centers and triggers the release of neuropeptides that reinforce seeking and motivation for new learning and play a critical role in unlearning, both required for growth and change. Though Barbara Fredrickson’s research is not referenced in The Brain that Changes Itself, her work on the broaden-and-build and undoing effect of positive emotions will be a constant companion for every reader with a positive psychology background.

For instance, Fredrickson’s (2005) research shows that positive affect can “undo” physiological effects of negative emotions such as anxiety and stress. Several studies have shown that stress has a profound, damaging effect on neurogenesis, and can lead to the destruction and atrophy of neurons and suppression of new neural growth (Warner-Schmidt and Duman, 2006).

Neuropeptides associated with positive affect may also mediate a different kind of undoing effect—in this context called unlearning—on brain maps. Love, bonding, and the associated neuromodulator oxytocin may cause massive plastic change by softening existing neural networks so that new bonds and habits can be quickly learned via new connections in neural networks.

Doidge’s book suggests that positive psychology has a great deal to offer anyone interested in neural plasticity and health. Two of the most important messages of this book are that the human brain is always able to change, and that interventions work when they alter the brain’s structure and functioning. On the open ocean of the mind, you are both cartographer and navigator, and deep happiness may very well be True North.



Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain That Changes Itself. New York: Penguin Books.

Fredrickson, B. (2005). Positive Emotions. In C. R. Snyder, & Lopez, S.J. (Ed.), Handbook of Positive Psychology. New York: Oxford University Press.

Warner-Schmidt, J. D., R. (2006). Hippocampal Neurogenesis: Opposing Effects of Stress and Antidepressant Treatment. Hippocampus, 16, 239-249.

Images: Norman Doidge, Electric Slide, Smiling Girl, Neuroplasticity.

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Dave Shearon 20 September 2008 - 7:43 am

Hi, Denise! Thanks for this first article.

I note that Kathryn’s article on “Training the Mind Changes the Brain” and Nick’s on “Brainset” — both of which look at Carol Dweck’s work on self-theories — are linked above. Part of Dr. Dweck’s research actually looked at the impact of reading articles made up to look like Psychology Today articles, one of which suggested most achievement was based on hard-wired aspects of the brain and another that focused on neuroplasticity. Test subjects that read the hard-wired article moved to a more fixed self-theory. Those that read the neuroplasticity article moved toward a more growth-oriented self-theory. Thus, Dr. Dweck includes instruction in neuroplasticity as one of four ways to promote growth self-theories, along with process praise, stories about great achievers that focus on sustained effort and failures overcome, and direct instruction about her research on self-theories.

Kirsten Cronlund 20 September 2008 - 8:31 am


Thanks for this thought-provoking piece. I’m particularly interested in posttraumatic growth and what contributes to that. Does this book devote a lot of time to this topic?


Senia Maymin 20 September 2008 - 11:19 am


I loved this book! To me, it read like an Oliver Sachs book – but about the brain. I love the first story about the woman constantly falling, and that neat thing that worked for her as a solution.

I think it’s so fun that you used the electric slide metaphor! Talk about a way to activate those mental connections – now when I think of electric slide, I am thinking “brain.”

A fabulous website that a friend of mine runs is http://www.sharpbrains.com – about a lot of current research primarily about neuroplasticity.

Finally, Dave, what an interesting connection to the Carol Dweck research! Like the electric slide connection, I wouldn’t have made this leap had you not made it for me – that this is what the participants in those studies read about – thank you.

Best, and good weekend,

Kathryn Britton 20 September 2008 - 11:18 am

I’ve put a reserve on this book at the public library — Barbara Fredrickson told me that she really enjoyed reading it. She found that it did a good job of reporting the bits of neuroscience that she already knew, so she was more confident reading the bits she didn’t already know. So you have reinforced that connection for me.

I am reading Eric Kandel’s book, In Search of Memory, out loud to my husband. Dr. Kandel won the Nobel Prize in 2000 for his work on the neuroscience of memory and learning. He describes his research into what happens in neurons during both short-term and long-term memory formation. In his model animal, Aplysia (sea slug)Aplysia Californicus, short-term memory formation is functional and modulated by release of serotonin after an event occurs. Long-term memory tends to occur after multiple stimulations and involves anatomical changes — new synapses grow and existing synapses become stronger (yield more neurotransmitters).

I was struck by the role of serotonin — which is associated with positive emotion in humans. This may be part of the reason that people learn better when they are experiencing positive emotion — as Richie Davidson pointed out in his movie clip (see Training the mind… referenced above). Availability of serotonin facilitates the formation of short-term memory, and existence of short-term memory facilitates the anatomical changes that represent long-term memory.

That’s a vast oversimplification of a very interesting discovery process that Dr. Kandel describes so well. I recommend his book to those who enjoy the above.


Marie-Josee Salvas 22 September 2008 - 2:38 pm

Great article, Denise!

You literally sparked all kinds of creative connections for me – thank you! I appreciate your insight on how habits are formed and changed from a plasticity point of view. Your conclusion that deep happiness may very well be True North also points to why the pursuit of happiness is such an interesting topic for human beings to discuss and tackle!

Very good contribution!


Denise 22 September 2008 - 5:37 pm

Hi everyone,

Thank you for your thoughtful comments and new directions to explore! I just returned from a weekend away and it is a joy to connect with you on PPND.

Kirsten, Doidge does write about recovering from trauma in this book, connecting research and personal experiences from his psychiatry practice. He also describes what he calls “the plasticity paradox” — that the same conditions which allow for change and healing can also create rigidity in destructive patterns and associations. I think you might find a lot of connections to your research related to posttraumatic growth.

With gratitude,


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