Carol Craig is the Centre's Chief Executive. She is author of The Scots' Crisis of Confidence, Creating Confidence: A Handbook for Professionals Working with Young People, The Tears that Made the Clyde: Well-being in Glasgow and The Great Takeover: How materialism, the media and markets now dominate our lives. She is Commissioning editor for the Postcards from Scotland series. Carol blogs on confidence, well-being, inequality, every day life and some of the great challenges of our time. The views she expresses are her own unless she specifically states that they reflect the Centre's thinking.
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I was fairly certain that the Norman Doidge event on ‘the brain that changes itself’ would prove popular but in fact the interest exceed my expectations. In the end a staggering 470 people crammed into the lecture theatre to hear what he had to say. Many had travelled a fair distance to be there – not just Edinburgh but Aberdeen, the Borders, Dumfries and Galloway.
People often say that they might as well not bother going to events to hear authors when they can just read the book. But this doesn’t take account of the fact that events are entirely different. For a start you hear a pared down, and often more memorable version of the book. Secondly while reading is solitary, events are, obviously, collective experiences. The playwright David Mammot once called going to the theatre ‘dreaming in public’. Well you could say that the Doidge type of event is ‘finding inspiration in public’. The inspiration comes not just from the speaker himself but from the energy and interest from those about you.
Another great advantage of the Doidge event is that you were able to see films of many of the people he talked about in the book. Some of these were sensational – blind people shooting basket ball, stroke victims walking again and a woman cursed with extreme balance problems making a full recovery.
Doidge’s message is remarkably simple. Our mechanistic view of the universe has encouraged us to see the brain as a machine, or nowadays as a computer. Commonly people talk about the brain being ‘hard-wired’. The brain as a machine metaphor has led us to believe that once it is fully working at the end of childhood then not much happens to it apart from the decay which sets in with old age. But Doidge helps us to see that the brain is plastic. This plasticity means that the brain grows and develops in response to learning. While the brain tends to use certain areas for specific tasks this is not fixed and the brain is capable of reorganising itself. For example, Norman Doidge told us about a woman who was to all intents and purposes normal – she worked, spoke, used humour etc – yet she was found to have only half a brain.
Many of those who came along on Tuesday night did so because they were interested in dyslexia or special needs and were particularly interested in the film Norman Doidge showed about Barbara Arrowsmith Young who has a school in Toronto. As a younger woman Barbara was plagued by learning difficulties and could hardly read a clock. After encountering some research she managed to find ways to strengthen her weak brain areas. She has now catalogued nineteen specific brain weaknesses and has exercises to strengthen them. This is not the usual approach to learning difficulties. It is much more common to try and work round problems rather than tackle the weak areas directly. So for example, the students will be allowed scribes, given extra time or told to listen to audio books rather than read. Barbara Arrowsmith Young’s approach is to diagnose the specific problem and then give students specific exercises to do which build up that area, exactly as someone would do with a weak muscle.
This particularly interested me as I am dyslexic. I did not realise this till I was in my early 40s and both my boys were struggling at school with learning difficulties. I hated the first few years of school and would have called myself a ‘late developer’ as I wasn’t that good at primary school and seemed to have got much better academically as I entered my late teens. When I took my boys to an educational psychologist he also assessed me and said I was undoubtedly dyslexic. I now realised that my father is as well.
A year or so ago I went along to speak to an adult dyslexic group and I came away thinking that it had been a real advantage to me not to know I was dyslexic. They put everything they didn’t like about themselves down to their condition (such as being untidy which I would see as attributable to personality – there’s lots of untidy non-dyslexics in the world and at least some tidy dyslexics like my father). Many of them had a very fatalistic attitude – they just felt they couldn’t learn to do lots of things.
In my case I think a fairly traditional education forced me to learn things which these days I would be able to avoid. I am also sure I benefited greatly from constantly playing outdoors with balls, skipping ropes and the like. Sure I would have benefited from a bit more understanding but in the end I mastered the basics and found the more conceptual parts of learning much easier.
One of the things that I liked about Norman Doidge is that he didn’t oversell his argument. OF course, he argued, not all brain conditions can be cured and there was little hope of change if people were not able to perform exercises. He also pointed out that brain plasticity has a down side making people more vulnerable to negative influences such as pornography or indoctrination.
Despite Norman Doidge’s note of realism I’m sure that the vast majority of people who left the lecture hall on Tuesday night did so with more hope. What we all heard was quite clear – things are not as fixed as we think. Our brains are living organic things which can grow, develop and even heal.