The Brain That Changes Itself – Norman Doidge, MD Chapter 3 – Redesigning the Brain – Part 2

To continue our survey of the work of Michael Merzenich, PhD, Doidge tells of Merzenich’s next experiment. First, he mapped the hand map in the brain of a monkey. Then, he cut off the middle finger. Months later, he remapped the same area and found that the map for the middle finger was gone, but the mapping for the two adjacent fingers had taken over the area once used for the middle finger. He also learned that while there are similarities among the different species, there are no two identical mind maps. He also learned that the brain maps continued to change even without a major trauma like losing a finger. In writing up these findings, Merzenich used the word plasticity without qualification. He received hostile treatment from fellow scientists who refused to take his conclusions seriously.  P. 60-61

“The most frustrating thing,” says Merzenich, “was that I saw that neuroplasticity had all kinds of potential implications of human neuropathology and psychiatry. And nobody paid any attention.” P. 62

By mapping the monkey’s hand brain map periodically, he was able to demonstrate the change over time. Carl that Shatz, a neuroscientist, summarized “Neuron that fire together wire together.” P. 63

Beginning in the late 1980s, Merzenich began to demonstrate that two separate mind maps would merge as a result of sewing two fingers together. When researches touch any part of the two joined fingers, the whole area would light up in the brain. “The experiment showed that timing of the input to the neurons in the map was the key to forming it – neurons that fired together in time wired together to make one map.” P. 64

Others verified these findings on two humans who were born with webbed fingers. “In neuroscience this finding is now summarized as Neurons that fire apart wire apart – or Neurons out of sync fail to link.” P. 64

Next Merzenich found that when all five fingers stimulated simultaneously 500 times a day over a month, mapped as one “finger.” P. 64 Finally, a patch skin with nerve endings of one finger was surgically implanted on another finger, stimulation cased the new location to fire. P. 64

Eventually, Merzenich succeeded in convincing his colleagues of neuroplasticity in adults, but he had not yet explained how the maps organize themselves to become topogphical, or ordered as the body is ordered. “Topographical organization is efficient, because it manes that parts of the brain that often work together in the brain map, so signals don’t have to travel far in the brain itself.” P. 65

Bill Jenkins, a behavioral psychologist, joined Merzenich’s research team with an interest in how we learn. They taught a monkey to touch a spinning disk, mapping the sensory cortex before and after. The brain map increased in size when the monkey learned this new skill. “The experiment also showed that as brain maps get bigger, the individual neurons get more efficient in two stages. At first, as the monkey trained, the map for the fingertip grew to take up more space. But after a while individual neurons within the map became more efficient, and eventually few neurons were required to perform the task.” They also discovered that “individual neurons got more selective with training – overall the map became more precise.” Also, they learned that neurons began to process faster. All of this reflects on IQ scores so these experiments demonstrate the plasticity of ‘intelligence.’ Further, they learned that “paying close attention is essential to long-term plastic change.” P. 66- 69

These experiments form part of the foundation for the key words of neurodevelopmental approach: duration, frequency and intensity. For changes to occur, specific brain stimulation (activities on an individualized neurodevelopmental plan) must be done for short (duration – usually just minutes), throughout the day (frequency – number of times) with full focus (intensity). For more information visit:

Homeschool Annual Testing: 12 Questions to Ask Potential Test Administators

Home educators must consider important questions regarding the issue of academic testing. Ask and answer these questions as you prepare to assess your child’s progress.

Why should we have our child assessed or tested?

One very practical reason is that your state law may specify that you must. Whether or not the state is overstepping its authority with such a law is a question for another time. Knowing the homeschool law in your state is only the first step in this consideration. For some their state law requires some sort of testing annually and some state require testing at only certain grade levels, every two or three years. Some state laws specify which tests, types of tests and who can administer the test.

Besides the law, having your child assessed or tested can provide a third-party evaluation of the progress your child is making. I do recognize that parents know their child much better than any other person, regardless of the training of either the parent or the test administrator. However, we may have a blind spot regarding some areas. Test results can provide direction and encouragement. To maximize the information you receive you should interview the test administrator to learn if that individual will provide the information that you need or want from the process. The test administrator may also be able to answer other questions regarding educating your child.

Another reason to have your child assessed is to prepare a child for future testing for college or for obtaining a job. When done on an annual basis, a child is more likely to take in stride any of the normal “butterflies in the stomach” he may experience.

What kind of test / assessment should we use?

Again, refer to your state law to determine what types of tests or assessments will fulfill the law. You may decide that what you need is a different assessment tool so you may choose to do one to comply with the state and another to gather the information you require.

There are two general types of tests that would usually be used for an annual assessment. First, consider a standardized, normed test. Test makers standardize the way the test is administrated so that when they use an average sample group of test takers, they can compare your child’s scores with the scores with the “norming group.” These are often more objective than the second type. Second, there are non-test assessments. In the state of Washington, the non-test assessment is not defined, but the one administering it must be a certified teacher currently working in the field of education. Your state may define this second choice more specifically. In Washington, teachers who administer non-test assessments may use a variety of tools and / or may evaluate student work in the different subjects. Your interview will help you find an administrator and an assessment right for your child. Most children feel less stress with the non-test assessment and you may be isolating what your child knows from learning how well your child tests.

It is possible that your child will benefit from diagnostic testing – to find holes in learning or testing to determine if there is a learning difficulty.

What questions should we ask as I interview a test administrator? Here are some to get you started:

1. Where do you administer tests? (You may rule some out based on how close you live and if you are willing to make the trip for the times and frequency required.)

2. What tests do you administer?

3. What kind of results will I get?

4. When will I get the results?

5. Will I need to stay on the premises during the testing?

6. Or, may I sit in during the assessment?

7. How long will the test take?

8. What are your qualifications for administering this test / assessment?

9. How long have you been testing?

10. How much does the testing cost?

11. Based on this information (what you provide) which test would you recommend for my child?

12. If a group test, how many will be in the testing?

For information regarding homeschooling testing and other matters, contact the Home School Legal Defense Association: They provide information regarding the homeschool laws in all 50 states as well as state-wide homeschool organizations. It is a great first website for homeschooling.

Maggie Dail operates the Center for Neuro Development in Lakewood, Washington along with her husband, Ronnie. The Center is affiliated with Academy Northwest and Family Academy. They home schooled two foster sons and have worked with home schooling families for nearly 20 years. Maggie earned her M.A. in Special Education in 1989 and has taught for nearly 40 years.

Homeschool Testing and other services – on location or by Skype / Phone / E-mail –

Academy Northwest is a state approved private extension program for homeschoolers and accredited by the Northwest Accreditation Commission. Local and online services available. Family Academy offers an online home school parent’s course that includes more information about developing your own Unit Studies and much more: Able to Teach

Redesigning the Brain Chapter 3 – Part 1 – The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge

In this chapter, Doidge introduces Michael Merzenich to us. His work has produced a cochlear implant for deaf individuals. For others with learning disabilities, he and his team have produced Fast ForWord, a software program. Fast ForWord disguises itself as a children’s game. With as little as 30-60 hours of treatment, big changes have been made. Children with autism have, unexpectedly also been helped.

“Merzenich claims that when learning occurs in a way consistent with the laws that govern brain plasticity, the mental ‘machinery’ of the brain can be improved so that we learn and perceive with greater precision, speed, and retention” p. 47

“The cerebral cortex,” he says of the thin outer layer of the brain, “is actually selectively its processing capabilities to fit each task at hand.” It doesn’t simply learn; it is always “learning how to learn” The brain  Merzenich describes is not an inanimate vessel that we fill; rather it is more like a living creature with an appetite, one that can grow and change itself with proper nourishment and exercise.” P. 48

In the 1930s neuroscientists were “localizationists” identifying the frontal cortex as the area for the brain’s motor systems (output), “which initiates and coordinates the movement of our muscles.” P. 28 They also identified three lobes behind the frontal cortex as the parts that process sensory input. These three lobes are temporal, parietal and occipital – receptors for the eyes, ears, touch receptors etc. p. 28 Dr. Wilder Penfield of the Montreal Neurological Institute began mapping the mind in the 1930s.  “One of the greatest discoveries Penfield made was that sensory and motor brain maps, like geographical maps, are topographical, meaning that areas adjacent to each other on the body’s surface are generally adjacent to each other on the brain maps.” P. 49

Since “scientists believed that the brain couldn’t change, they assumed, and taught that the maps were fixed, immutable, and universal – the same for each of us – though Penfield himself never made either claim.” P 49

Years later, Merzenich discovered that brains could change and that the brain maps were not fixed. He was able to use much finer instruments than had using microelectrodes during his graduate studies at John Hopkins. Merzenich and his colleagues laboriously mapped extensively parts of the brain during surgeries – placing microelectrodes are a part of a monkey’s brain and then touching different parts of the body. P. 51

In the 1960s two other scientists were micromapping the visual cortex. David Hubel and Tortsen Wiesel also at John Hopkins were learning how vision is processed using kittens. They learned that newborn kittens need to receive specific visual stimulation from the third to eighth week of life in order to develop normally. In the experiment one eye was sewn shut during the ‘critical period’ That eye was blind for life, but the part of the brain responsible for that eye had already begun to redesign itself for another use. These men received the Nobel Prize for their work. They demonstrated neuroplasticity in the ‘critical period” but remained localizationists, believing that the adult brain was hard wired.

This discovery of a critical period was reinforced with the work of other scientists. Different neural functions had their own critical period. “Language development, for instance, has a critical period that begins in infancy and ends between eight years and puberty. After this critical period closes, a person’s ability to learn a second language without an accent is limited. In fact, second languages learned after the critical period are not processed in the same part of the brain as is the native tongue.” P. 52

Etiologist, Konrad Lorenz learned that goslings could ‘imprint” or bond with a human if exposed to a human during their critical period of fifteen hours and three days.  P. 52

These discoveries caused doctors to do surgeries during that critical period to take advantage of this time frame., However, “Merzeninch’s first glimpse of adult plasticity was accidental.” After receiving his doctorate he and neurosurgeons Ron Paul and Herbert Goodman “decided to observe what happens in the brain when one of the peripheral nerves in the hand is cut and then starts to regenerate.” P. 53
Nervous System has two parts:
1) Central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord) – command and control center (thought to lack plasticity)
2) Peripheral nervous system  – brings messages to the spinal cord and brain and carries messages from the central nervous to the muscles and glands. (known to have plasticity – that is it could regenerate or heal itself).
Neurons have three parts:
1) Dendrites – treelike branches that receive input from other neurons.
2) Cell body – dendrites lead to the cell body – sustains life; contains DNA
3) Axon – living cable of varying lengths – carry electrical to neighboring neurons – very high speeds.  P. 53
Neurons receive two types of signals:
1) excitatory signals – when received the neuron will send its own signal
2) inhibitory signals – when received the neuron will be less likely to send off a signal p. 53-54
These neurons are separated by a microscopic space called a synapse.

In their experiment they cut the nerves on the hands of several adolescent monkeys. Then they sewed them together, but not closely enough to rejoin in the same place. They expected to see a chaotic brain map after seven months. To their surprise Merzenich said, “What we saw was absolutely astounding. I couldn’t understand it.” “It was topographically arranged as though the brain had unshuffled the signals from the crossed nerves.” P. 55 Merzenich realized that he and all scientist had it all wrong. The brain could normalize structure in response to abnormal input. Neuroplasticity beyond the ‘critical period’ had to explain this.

Merzenich scoured the library to find other evidence that contradicted localization:
1) 1912 – Graham Brown & Charles Sherington – “stimulating one point in the motor cortex might cause an animal to bend its leg at one time and straighten it at another” p. 55
2) 1923 – Karl Lashley – also found the same stimulus could produced a different movement.
He wrote a paper, but it was rejected. He was working in someone else’s lab.

Merzenich became a professor of the University of California of San Francisco in 1971. As a professor in the department of otolaryngology and physiology, he began some experiments under the guise of acceptable research. He was mapping the auditory cortex of different animals. This work contributed to invent and perfect the cochlear implant. Unlike a hearing aid, which amplifies sound in someone who is hard of hearing, the cochlear implant replaces the damaged cochlea in a deaf person. While the artificial cochlea is much simpler than the original, the fact that the brain could modify itself to the artificial one, is another indication that the brain at any age is plastic.

Later, Merzenich and Joh Vass of Vanderbilt University in Nashville cut the median nerve in the hand of adult monkeys. Two months later, the micromapping demonstrated that the radial and ulnar muscles had taken over much of the unused part of the brain previously used by the median nerve. The wrote up their results and used the word “plasticity.” P. 58-59

These experiments help us understand the competitive nature of plasticity. If you don’t use it in the original way, you lose it and some other function takes it over.

Merzenich’s work has much more to teach us so we will continue with this next time.

While many of these men were not Christians, we as Christians can see that we, indeed, “are fearfully and wonderfully made.” Psalm 139