“I’m of two minds,” we say. Or, “I changed my mind.” These phrases roll casually off the tongue, but we don’t mean them literally. Maybe we should, according to two new books that explore the fascinating history and tantalizing future of neuroscience.
Are you primarily right-brained or left-brained? You might think you know, but Michael S. Gazzaniga is here to tell you it’s not that simple. Gazzaniga pioneered split-brain research with his colleagues at the California Institute of Technology in the 1960s. In Tales from Both Sides of the Brain: A Life in Neuroscience, he details the experiments that led us to talk about the brain’s two hemispheres in the first place. Filled with scientific luminaries like psychobiologist Roger W. Sperry and theoretical physicist Richard Feynman, Tales from Both Sides of the Brain takes us back to the intellectually energetic laboratories of Caltech. In scenes that read like episodes of “The Big Bang Theory”—intellectual energy abounds—we sit in on experiments done with split-brain patients, whose brains’ hemispheres had been surgically separated to treat epilepsy.
Gazzaniga meticulously documents the strange things that happen when the two sides of the brain aren’t communicating, such as losing the ability to label an item held in the left hand, even though the answer comes swiftly when the same object rests in the right. What’s even more fascinating, though, is the way the brain can sometimes overcome such limits. As Gazzaniga says, the brain is not a “random bowl of spaghetti” but a “biologic machine” with the power to rewire itself. Gazzaniga tells the stories of split-brain patients who have regained lost functionality as their brains’ hemispheres learned to “cue” each other in new ways.
Director of the SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind at the University of California, Santa Barbara and president of the Cognitive Neuroscience Institute, Gazzaniga continues to search for answers about how the brain works. His impassioned writing invites readers into his world, where the science of the past sets the stage for even greater discoveries to come.
BRAIN, HEAL THYSELF
Where Gazzaniga carefully documents the past, Norman Doidge, M.D. marches enthusiastically into the future in a dazzling collection of stories about neuroplasticity and the ever-changing brain. Following up on his 2007 bestseller, The Brain That Changes Itself, which brought the science of neuroplasticity to a mainstream audience, in The Brain's Way of Healing, Doidge considers cutting-edge treatments that use the body’s senses to access, and improve, neurological functioning.
In friendly vignettes reminiscent of Oliver Sacks’ case studies, Doidge chronicles the heroic efforts of patients with a wide variety of apparently intractable ailments, from chronic pain to multiple sclerosis. All have been treated successfully with non-invasive, natural methods that take advantage of the adaptive abilities of the nervous system. In-depth, personal stories describe patients like John Pepper, who has kept his Parkinson’s disease symptoms in check with a vigorous, yet careful, exercise regimen, and David Webber, whose blindness was relieved with a series of relaxation and visualization exercises.
The list of successful healings is long and impressive; it’s tempting to be skeptical of such a wealth of glowing accounts, except that Doidge truly takes a holistic approach to his subjects, getting to know them and their doctors and sharing every detail with his readers. Doidge doesn’t just read about low-light laser treatments, for example, but actually sits in on multiple sessions and discusses the science behind them. Similarly, he delves into the lives and careers of innovators like Moshé Feldenkrais, whose integrative movement protocol is well known, but whose escape from Nazi Germany is likely not.
Each of Doidge’s examples suggests tangible treatment ideas for patients who may have thought they were out of options. Doidge’s penchant for considering unconventional approaches to healing offers hope for all.