Tag Archives: Centre For Well-being and Confidence

The Brain That Changes Itself

On Tue 15 Sept I went to an event in Glasgow Caledonia University organised by the Centre For Confidence and Well-being. A capacity crowd turned out to listen to Dr. Norman Doidge discuss ideas from his recent book, The Brain That Changes Itself.

Formerly, I could never decide whether, before attending a talk about a book, it would be better to have read none, some or all of the book. I had read about 1/3 of the book before attending and so was familiar with a little of the territory. I must confess to being no nearer a solution to this dilemma as I felt that prior knowledge of some chapters made those parts of the talk easier to follow (and film footage of some of the characters certainly reinforced my memory of what I had read). However, nearing the end of the book, I also feel certain that having been present at the talk enabled me to get more out of the remaining chapters.

I would say that the central claim of the book is that the metaphor of hard wiring and the perception of the brain as a computer are not supported by evidence of the brain’s capacity for change – as cited in the book’s wealth of anecdotal evidence of near-miraculous recovery from strokes and neurological disorders.

In person and in his writing, Dr Doidge effortlessly guides the lay listener/reader through what might hitherto have been regarded as difficult territory. I got a great deal out of reading the book but would like to concentrate on three nuggets which I feel immediately applicable to professional and personal development.

Learning Difficulty. Dr Doidge suggested that we all tend to equate this term with the same few deficits – difficulty with reading, writing, auditory processing etc. Our society has come to prize these activities/tools. Had things turned out otherwise, many more of us might find ourselves categorised as having a learning difficulty. I for example, have no sense of direction whatever, and precious little visual acuity. I wouldn’t have survived half-an-hour in a hunter-gatherer society and it’s lucky for me that I appeared here and now.

Attention: Dr. Doidge makes it very clear that lasting cognitive change is impossible without the full attention of the learner. We all know this but it’s rewarding to hear the evidence put forward from such a physical, as opposed to pedagogical, point of view.

Habit: we are all familiar with the adage, use it or lose it. Unless I’ve missed something, there does not seem to be a similarly snappy phrase for the other side of this coin – repeat it and benefit from/live with it. As a teacher of physical techniques I feel vindicated in having been such a stickler for technical correctness. Poor habits, once instilled, are very difficult to shake off and the thousands of reminders-per-week have not been in vain. The idea of fuss being made of posture, hand positions etc. can summon up images of terrified pupils, sitting bolt-upright, their limbs and digits exhibiting the flexibility of wrought-iron. Au contraire. What I am describing is natural technique where the skeleton does its own work and the muscles do only what is required. This could be summed up as follows: the strength is in the technique – not the person. That reinforcement in this regard should come from a book about neuroplasticity is no more of a surprise to me than the fact that my approach to natural technique came, not from music college, but from here.


This afternoon I was proud to take part in a performance with 9 guitarists and 2 singers from Knox Academy & North Berwick High School. Organised by Health Scotland, the theme was mental well-being and the idea of the performance was to allow delegates to see the benefits conferred upon young people by engagement in positive activity. This resonates with my own view (not mine alone, of course) that involvement in something, which is both meaningful and bigger than oneself, is one of the key ingredients of good mental health. Music and sport provide many and varied opportunities for the natural occurrence of this phenomenon.

Impromptu MC, I was keen to highlight the relevance of the way in which much of the music had been put together to the themes of the day. Many of the pupils had been on exam leave for several weeks and, nevertheless, were game to take on new material for public performance at very short notice. One example of positive attitude was to be seen in two pupils who agreed to join in the accompaniment of two songs only yesterday. Another was in the willingness of the whole group to perform a blues put together in a few minutes with neither notes nor overall plan written out. Four individuals volunteered improvised solos in this blues, and I was keen that the audience enjoy the quality of living in the moment, which always adds an immediacy to performance. I decided to dedicate this blues to Carol Craig of the Centre for Confidence and Well-being who was seated quite near the group. Her talk on well-being at the 2007 Scottish Learning Festival was one of those rare events where someone appears to be articulating inchoate thoughts you’ve had for years.

Our final item, an arrangement of The Average White Band‘s Pick Up The Pieces, seemed apposite. The young people playing have most of their lives before them. Things are bound to go wrong in the remaining decades but the thing is to pick up the pieces and keep on keeping on.

Thanks to everybody involved* for representing East Lothian in general, and these two schools in particular. The audience seemed both engaged and moved and the organisers were very grateful to the pupils for providing exactly the positive effects they had envisioned.

* the day had kicked off with a performance by some hip-hop dancers from Dunbar Grammar School – unfortunately this was long before we arrived for our lunchtime slot.