“The Brain that Changes Itself” – Book Review

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It has been a long time since I read a book in a single day. Yesterday I started and finished reading “The Brain that Changes Itself” by Norman Doidge, MD. As an educator, father and individual interested in self improvement, I was absolutely astounded by most of what I read. As an agile methods coach, I discovered some important, directly applicable ideas. Read on for a review of this book.

Myths of the Brain

You have probably heard or read somewhere that different parts of the brain control different parts of our body. Wrong.

You have probably heard that after a serious stroke, a person is crippled for life. Wrong.

You have probably heard that mental decline in old age is inevitable. Wrong.

“The Brain that Changes Itself” provides specific compelling evidence to show that these and other beliefs about the brain are dead wrong. Our brains are remarkably flexible, malleable… plastic. This basic point of the book is shown through a multitude of compelling examples. There is the story of the woman born with half a brain who is able to function almost completely normally. There is the story of the surgeon who had a stroke that paralyzed him on one side… only to have total and complete functionality restored to that side. All of these stories are backed up with rigorous scientific investigation and a complete set of notes.

About the Book

The book itself is written in a compelling fashion. The style of writing is light and accessible, the stories are well-told, and the scientific details are present yet unobtrusive. Some of the stories are deeply moving.

On the other hand, some of the material is a bit stretched. There is a chapter on talk therapy which is over-long. There is a chapter describing some deviant behavior which children should not be exposed to and which even sensitive people would probably avoid to their benefit (Chapter 4).

The books is pure text… and it suffers from the lack of pictures or diagrams. There are numerous places where a diagram of the physical structure of the brain, or a photo of a miraculous device would really make for a stronger presentation. For example, there are numerous discussions about how our physical body is “mapped” to areas of the brain. I have seen diagrams of this mapping in other texts and they would help make the idea much more concrete.

The book itself is a good-quality hardcover. It consists of 427 pages including eleven chapters, and two appendices. The table of contents can be found below for your reference.

Agile Brains – Agile Teams

The books is full of stories that bring fresh optimism to my work as an agile coach. Often I encounter individuals or organizations that don’t seem to “get agile”. This book provides some interesting guidance on how to overcome these mental blocks and has resulted for me in some insights.

The first insight is just practice. Actually doing agile is probably the best way to learn it and “get it”. The trick here is to follow an exact and complete set of rules until they are perfected and only after that try variations. By perfecting the rules, we allow our brains to demonstrate that we have truly internalized (or mapped) agile methods.

The second insight is also practice… but related to time and frequency. I have long believed that shorter iterations are a more effective way of learning agile methods. Shorter iterations allow for more repetition of the basic rules and structures of agile methods, which allows for more effective internalizing of agile practices. Under the right conditions, brain maps change quickly (minutes), but in order to “stick”, the changes have to be reinforced over the course of months.

The third insight is the importance of coaching itself. In order to change brains, it is necessary to get it right. The most reliable way to get it right is to have a coach who can help a team by demonstrating, guiding and sometimes correcting.

The fourth insight is the importance of practice when I am delivering training (rather than when I am coaching a team). My courses would be much better off if they were simply packed with a mini project that was executed over multiple extremely short iterations.

Recommendation: MUST READ!
Caution: not for children or sensitive types.

The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science (James H. Silberman Books)

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