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Speaking at the National Book Festival last weekend, best-selling neuroscience writer Dr. Norman Doidge explained that Western medicine has long been handicapped by a mistaken idea: “the human brain can’t heal” – but this simply isn’t true. Just as new skin will grow back if we scuff our knee, Doidge said, the fact is that our brains have the “ability to form, un-form and reform circuitry.”
Doidge, author of the recently published book, The Brain’s Way of Healing: Remarkable Discoveries and Recoveries from the Frontiers of Neuroplasticity, has encountered many skeptics who think what he describes “seems too good to be true.” In particular, he pointed out, some find it hard to accept his stories of people whose lives were transformed by non-invasive interventions that made use of various forms of energy that communicate with the brain through sensory pathways.
Yet, while it may seem controversial in the West, in traditional Eastern medicine it is common practice to combine energy and mental awareness to promote healing. “This is a very Western book”, Doidge said, but expressed the hope that it could provide “a bridge to Eastern thought.”
Two chapters of Doidge’s book are dedicated to describing the discoveries of Moshe Feldenkrais, a physicist and Judo black belt who developed a method for “using movement to talk to the brain.” (click here to read an excerpt of this section of the book recently published on Salon.com) Later this month, at the 5th DC Feldenkrais Festival, a group of volunteer teachers will offer the public a free opportunity to experience group movement classes, a workshop for parents of children with special needs, and individual hands-on sessions that are designed to take advantage of the brain’s ability to form new patterns. So it was no coincidence that six of us were in the audience that night!
Addressing the question of why the notion that “the brain cannot heal” has been so persistent, Doidge examined several key ideas that are prevalent in Western medicine. First, he described what he called the “military metaphor”, the idea that doctors “fight battles” against diseases. The problem with this perspective is that “the patient’s role in their own care disappears.” At best we see our bodies as the battleground where two antagonists (the doctor and the disease) face off while we become passive, counting on our health problems “to be taken care of by someone else.”
On the other hand, in a Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement (ATM) class, while following the teacher’s verbal instructions, all decisions about how to move are left up to the student. The teacher’s role is not to show what is “correct” or not, but simply to create a safe environment which offers the best possible conditions for the student to discover greater comfort through her own exploration. Likewise, even in a hands-on Functional Integration session where movement is guided by the practitioner’s hands, the key agent of change is the way that brain pays attention to the movement experience.
After experiencing their first Feldenkrais session, many people are amazed that a series of simple movements can help them to melt away habitual and unnecessary muscle contractions, creating new sensations of lightness and freedom of movement. The change is felt in the body, but also reflects a change in the brain where motor patterns originate before being communicated to the muscles in order to move the skeleton. This is neuroplasticity at work, or, as Doidge puts it, how “the structure and function of the brain can change according to mental experience.”
But while a change in the brain can be felt throughout the body, Doidge also cautioned against another common theme in Western neuroscience, the idea that “you are your brain.” The common belief that the body merely “serves” the brain is “spectacularly wrong,” Doidge said. As a matter of fact, evolutionarily speaking, the brain developed after the body. Doidge says that in the Feldenkrais Method and other interventions described in The Brain’s Way of Healing, the senses act as “transducers,” in other words, devices to convert one form of energy into another, feeding vital information to the brain.
As an example he pointed to the microphone that was amplifying his voice by converting the energy of the sound waves into electricity that passed through a wire to then be converted again into sound by another transducer, the speaker system. In the same way, he pointed out, our ears were transducing the sound of his voice from the speakers and creating electrical patterns in the brain that we used to understand his meaning and notice the tone of his voice.
In one treatment of children with autism described in Doidge’s book, gentle music with a controlled mix of frequencies, sometimes combined with the sound of the child’s mother’s voice, presents the brain with a novel pattern of electricity and associations that can help unlock limiting patterns in the child’s behavior. During a Feldenkrais lesson, the student makes a series of gentle movements, but more importantly, she uses her attention to notice subtle sensations caused by changes in pressure against a supporting surface or the way that the movement of one limb alters the feeling in another part of one’s body. This information, generated through movement, creates a new learning environment for the brain, which immediately has the opportunity to try new possibilities. The nervous system processes the sensations, then re-imagines how to create new possibilities in subsequent movements by sending new kinds of signals.
How does this happen? Doidge described the process in very Western terms. While we often think of brain cells being either “on” or “off”, it is more accurate to say that, unless they are dead, they fire at faster and slower rates. However, because the brain’s neurons are always in constant communication with their neighbors, a change in the firing rate of one neuron also changes the firing rate of other neurons. When some neurons fire too fast or too slowly, communication gets jumbled. Consequently, Doidge says, it can be useful to think of the disordered brain as a “noisy” brain.
In his book, Doidge describes several stages in the brain’s healing process. In the first neuroplastic stage, neurostimulation, a source of energy is used to wake up a part of the brain that is dormant. In a Feldenkrais lesson, this is often a novel movement pattern (such as turning the head to the left while taking the eyes to the right), that creates the need to form a connection that has not been used for a long time. This stage, Doidge writes, “is effective in preparing the brain to build new circuits and in overcoming learned nonuse in existing circuits.”
Next comes neuromodulation, a way of bringing balance to the nervous system that, when disordered, spends a disproportionate amount of time in a state of “fight-or-flight” alertness. While such a state is necessary for certain survival situations, it can become perpetually turned on, leaving less room for calmer states that make thinking and reflection easier. In a Feldenkrais lesson, one way that this is achieved is by the guideline that the student is never to move in such a way that she is forced to stretch or strain. Instead, movement is always kept in the range where breathing can remain soft and easy and there is no sense of unnecessary effort anywhere in the body.
Creating the conditions for the brain to quiet unnecessary activity naturally leads to neurorelaxation – or simply, rest – and this is another well-documented effect of practicing the Feldenkrais Method. At the 4th DC Festival, during a discussion between classes, one participant credited her practice with curing her insomnia of many decades. “I know I’m going to sleep so well tonight!” she exclaimed, a comment that we have heard from many others after previous Festivals.
The final stage of neuroplastic healing that becomes possible once the brain has quieted down is what Doidge calls Neurodifferentiation and learning: This is when the brain “is able to pay attention again and is ready for learning, which involves the brain doing what it does best: making fine distinctions.”
In a Feldenkrais session, the student is repeatedly asked to notice small differences in sensations between the two sides of the body or the qualities of two slightly different variants of a similar movement. The refinement of sensitivity that develops through this practice is a skill that leads to a richer sensory experience throughout the activities of one’s day, leading to tremendous health benefits. For example, a keener sense of the way that one’s feet connect to the ground makes it much easier to maintain easy balance. A more specific feeling of the location of key joints in the body and how they move creates better flexibility. Learning how to distinguish the onset of discomfort much more quickly allows for more movement options to accommodate injury or chronic pain and gives greater possibility for recovery and the reduction of stress.
In conclusion, Doidge spoke about his choice of words for the title of his book. Why “healing”? The etymology of the word healing gives us the definition of restoring health by making one’s self whole again. In talking to the people whose stories fill his book, who had directly experienced the benefits of interventions that built on the brain’s capacity to form new patterns, Doidge heard one thing again and again: “I got my life back.”
Like Oliver Sacks, the great neuroscientist and author who recently passed away, Doidge hopes that part of his legacy will be to bring the entire personality of the individual back into the story of how we approach health, to put directly into practice the holistic idea of the unity of body and mind.
If you are interested in improving your health, in taking more control over your life, you would probably find a lot of inspiration in the pages of The Brain’s Way of Healing. If you are in DC later this month, the all-day Feldenkrais Festival on September 26 is a great opportunity to directly experience how you can change and develop in amazing ways by bringing your attention to the interactions of your brain, body and surroundings.
Like Doidge and Sacks, Moshe Feldenkrais also had a very broad vision of human health. As he once expressed it, “I am not seeking to develop flexible bodies, but flexible minds . . . I am interested in the re-establishment of our human dignity.”