The Brain That Changes Itself Norman Doidge M.D. Chapter 11 –“More Than the Sum of Her Parts – A Woman Shows Us How Radically Plastic the Brain Can Be”

In Chapter 11, Dr. Doidge introduces us to Michelle Mack, a 29 year old who was born with only the right hemisphere of her brain. At birth, her doctors were not aware of this and now that they do know, they only have theories of what happened before birth. In order for Michelle to function well, her right hemisphere had to learn the function of the left hemisphere and economize its own function. At 29 she holds down a part time job and enjoys her family. There are some outwards signs of her lack of a left hemisphere: bent, twisted right hand that can be used for some things; brace on right leg; she is a lefty and her left limbs are normal. Her right visual field is limited as she has a hard time seeing things coming from her right. Blindness on her right side has helped her develop an extremely keen sense of hearing. Thus she can experience sensory overload in her hearing and touch.

During pregnancy, Michelle’s mother had some difficulties and apparently her body was trying to miscarriage. Both mom and daughter are happy it didn’t. Michelle’s parents began to notice things that indicated developmental problems – vision, motor. They noticed that she was tracking visually so she was not totally blind. Her dad noticed that she likes music and wanted to hear certain music over and over. He had her crawl to the record player to earn listening again. This helped develop her brain and function.

Michelle explained to Dr. Doidge that she would use rhyming, nonsensical words when frustrated. Concrete thinking is much easier than abstract thinking. She can play Solitaire very quickly because the decisions are very concrete. Other, more abstract decisions are more difficult for her.

Michelle demonstrated savant abilities. She could tell what day of the week a date was within the last 18 years by memory. For those dates before that time, she would have to figure it out, but still could do it quickly and accurately. Doidge told her about the work of Alexandr Luria, a Russian neuropsychologist with a memory artist who had a photographic memory. Also, he told her about “synesthetes” whose senses were “cross-wired” so that they had a color code for days of the week. Michelle said she had a scene connected with days of week.

Dr. Jordan Grafman, the chief of the Cognitive Neurosciences section of the National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke has been working with Michelle Mack. His background includes working with a woman whose brain was damaged in an assault. After five years, other doctors had given up on increasing this woman’s function. However, Grafman began an intensive program of rehab – mind and body –and the woman’s function increased. He also served our military personnel in Viet Nam. In this case as well, he saw increase in function where none was expected. He formulated a theory integrating “nondoctrinaire localization and plasticity. His research revealed four kinds of plasticity.

1)       “Map Expansion” – neurons in the center of an area focus more on a task than the ones on the outer limit. Different areas compete for those peripheral neurons. The greater the demand the more likely the use for that area.

2)       “Sensory Reassignment” – When one sense is blocked, another area takes over the function of the blocked sense. In blindness, the senses of hearing or touch develop more and are keener.

3)       “Compensatory Masquerade” – once explained as “alternative strategies” when there is more than one way to do something.

4)       “Mirror Region Takeover” – this occurs when a part of one hemisphere fails to do its job, the mirror region on the other side takes over the function as well as it can. When the damage occurs before specialization develops, function approximates “normal” more than when it is later. P. 276 This is true for Michelle, the damage was before birth, while her brain was being formed.

Michelle’s parents are making preparations for Michelle’s care after they are gone, but she is pretty happy the way she is. Doidge again introduces a person and researchers as windows into the plasticity of the brain.

Achieve 1-2 Academic Years in 8-12 Weeks with Fast ForWord

Academy Northwest and Family Academy Online will be making Fast ForWord available beginning early in 2013. Scientific Learning’s Fast ForWord develops and strengthens memory, attention, processing rate, and sequencing – the cognitive skills essential for reading. By strengthening these skills, we see improvement in a wide range of critical and reading skills such as phonological awareness, phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension, decoding working memory, syntax, grammar, and other skills necessary to learn how to read or to become a better reader. In over 250 studies, research indicates that learners can see achievement gains of 1-2 years in as little as 8-12 weeks. While Fast ForWord is a literacy based program, studies that monitor progress in other areas of the curriculum confirm that it also improves other areas because Fast ForWord teaches one how to learn. Fast ForWord is definitely based on the now, well accepted concept of neuroplasticity that extends throughout life. Interactive activities of this program follow the important concepts of short, frequent, intense (i.e. full focus) that distinguish neuroplasticity. Fast ForWord is a learning accelerator with recommended protocols of 30, 40 or 50 minutes 4-5 times a week.

Those who would benefit from Fast ForWord include:

  1. Beginning Learners.
  2. Struggling Learners.
  3. English Language Learners.
  4. College-bound Learners.
  5. Learners preparing for GED and college entrance exams.
  6. Any Learner.

For more information contact us at or (253) 581-1588 or (

Dr. Mercola interview’s Scientific Learning’s founder, Dr. Michael Merzenich:

A Product Review: Releasing True Potential Elizabeth Harms B.Th, CND

            Elizabeth Harms, a neurodevelopmentalist from Canada, produced a 5 ½ hour neurodevelopmental seminar, Releasing True Potential. Introducing Elizabeth, Sylvia Funk, who has since become a certified neurodevelopmentalist herself, told of her own neurodevelopmental journey with her son. Then, a young man walked up to the front of the room and gave an excellent recitation of a funny poem. Elizabeth then began her talk by describing the early years of her son’s life. She had been told of all the things her son would never be able to do and yet, the young man who had given the recitation, obviously had more function than predicted.

            Professionals often give parents the news that their child has “autism” or “cerebral palsy” or “learning disabilities.” People inform the parents of what that child will never be able to do and that they need to adjust their expectations. Elizabeth and other neurodevelopmentalists say, “NO!” that function is a direct reflection of stimulation and opportunity. When given the appropriate and specific stimulation, the brain responds by development and function.

            Harms explained the ways we receive information (sensory input – the five senses, proprioception, vestibular) and the kinds of things we should do about it when there are missing pieces. What the missing pieces are or what the underlying problem is, determines what kind of stimulation must be provided. This is what the neurodevelopmentalist evaluates to design an individualized plan for each client.

            Some areas of the visual system that must be evaluated and difficulties addressed include: acuity, convergence, central detail vision. Auditory system areas to consider include: chronic ear infection / fluid, hyper or hypo sensitive hearing, distractible, audiogram and tympanogram results. While these are the two primary channels of input, the others, tactility, taste, smell, vestibular system and proprioception can greatly impact the ability to learn.

            Auditory processing and visual processing comprise an important part of learning. Elizabeth explained how to test and train these important skills and how they affect learning. She explained the skills of conceptualization and visualization and how they fit in the whole picture of learning. Finally, she dealt with the importance of hemispheric dominance. In the dominant hemisphere resides the cognitive skills, thinking and logic and in the subdominant hemisphere rests the creativity, music and emotion. Neurological organization and optimal function depends on having a dominant hemisphere.

            Key concepts in the neurodevelopmental approach are intensity (sustained focus), frequency (how often) and duration (how long). Releasing True Potential occurs by stimulating the brain in specific ways. Watching these DVDs provide an excellent introduction to the neurodevelopmental approach and are well worth your time.


Releasing True Potential is available from:


The Brain That Changes Itself: by Norman Doidge, M.D. Chapter 10 –Rejuvenation

In this chapter, Doidge introduces us to ninety year old Dr. Stanley Karansky. After retiring at 70 years old, Karansky retrained himself to be a family doctor. He worked in a small clinic for 10 years. More recently he completed the brain exercises that Merzenich’s team developed at Posit Science. These exercises improved his driving alertness during daytime and nighttime. At the time of the writing of this chapter, Karansky was still an active ninety year old whose parents died in their 40s. Karanasky illustrates how neuroplasticity reaches in to the latter years of life.

While Ramon y Cajal tried to find the truth of neuroplasticity for older folks, he failed. His work in the early part of the 20th century helped form the foundation for this discovery. His conclusion in his masterpiece of 1913, Degeneration and Regeneration of the Nervous System was, “In adult (brain) centers the nerve paths are something fixed, ended, immutable. Everything may die, nothing may be regenerated. It is for the science of the future to change, if possible, this harsh decree.” ( p.249)

Beginning in 1965, the work of Joseph Altman and Gopal D. Das of MIT demonstrated that rat brains produced new neurons. At that time, this study did not go with the current conventional wisdom so the results were discounted. Later in the 1980s, Fernando Nottebohm, a bird specialist, examined the brains of birds and came to the same conclusion. Then, Elizabeth Gould of Prince University set out to discover that the same is true in human brains. Eriksson followed with additional proof of regeneration of neurons in human brains.

Frederick “Rusty” Gage and Gerd Kempermann of Salk Laboratories in La Jolla, California determined to find out if neurogenesis strengthens mental capacity by studying mice. Gage’s theory was that “novel environments may trigger neurogenesis.” (p. 252) This theory is consistent with the work of Michael Merzenich.

In addition to this momentous discovery, it is also know that the brain’s “pruning back” when cells die can also improve function. Research also demonstrates that lateralization diminishes during those older years.

Dr. Karansky is doing things that are important to fight off age-related memory loss and physical function by exercising the brain and body. To summarize this Doidge ends the chapter in this way: “when Pablo Casals, the cellist, was ninety-one years old, he was approached by a student who asked, ‘Master, why do you continue to practice?’ Casals replied, “Because I am making progress.’”(p. 257)

What are you doing to maintain body and brain function?