In 1996 a computer programmer named David Webber suffered an eye condition called uveitis. He tried anti-inflammatory steroids, surgical procedures, and special glasses but lost his sight.
After moving to Greece, Webber tried Buddhist exercises, like meditation, eye exercises, and sun therapies. But they didn’t work. He then found a therapist who gave him “awareness through movement” exercises (like rolling on the floor) and body-awareness exercises (like “palming,” which decreases movement in the eyes).
Soon he could control the muscles in his eyes, which had gotten tense and jerky. When he felt his eyeballs in their sockets, he knew he was making progress. Finally, he mastered a series of hand exercises. Hand exercises? “The neurological pathways . . . that link hands and eyes are like a superhighway in the brain,” Webber explains. By exercising and concentrating, Webber could arouse the vast web of neurons for both hands and eyes in the brain’s motor cortex.
This approach eventually led to the restoration of his sight. By connecting his eyes to his whole body and brain, Webber could undo some of the damage to his eyes. The brain’s plasticity — its ability to change itself — contributed to the healing.
Norman Doidge tells the story of Webber and several other sufferers of various other ills in “The Brain’s Way of Healing,’’ an exciting overview of powerful new neuroscience theories that connect mind, body, and soul. Webber’s story, Doidge says, reveals a profound truth: “Simple awareness is an agent of change.’’ The brain, some researchers now believe, is not just the 3 pounds of flesh housed in the skull; it’s the whole nervous system and all the body’s organs. To deal with physical maladies, rewire the brain by tapping into all of the pathways from it to the body.
According to these researchers, brain therapies may be able to treat and sometimes heal autism, Parkinson’s, MS, ADD, chronic pain, Huntington’s, spinal cord and rotator cuff injuries, strokes, cerebral palsy, ear problems, and dyslexia. Treatments take all kinds of wild forms that seem sensible only when you learn how they spark the brain.
Consider the PoNS, a small device that helps MS victims regain control over their body. With the PoNS, users apply a flap with 144 electrodes to send charges into their tongue. Why the tongue? It is, Doidge writes, the “royal road to activating the entire human brain,” with 48 different types of receptors. The PoNS transmits charges to the nerve fibers and then to the brain. “[O]ur tongue stimulation . . . activates the whole brain,” says Yuri Danilov, a Russian-born neuroscientist, “so even if I can’t see where the damage is, I know the device is turning on the whole brain.”
Or consider the Electronic Ear, a tool for treating dyslexia, which channels Mozart and Gregorian chants through headphones, switching back and forth from lower to higher frequencies. That treatment not only strengthened connections among neurons but also “cut[s] out parasitic information in order to ‘listen to oneself thinking,’ ” as researcher Paul Madaule explains. Distractions, it turns out, don’t just make us lose focus while performing tasks; they also deaden circuits needed for the whole brain to function.
Or consider lasers, which beam low-intensity light to spark production of a molecule, ATP, that helps to repair and grow new cells for cartilage, bone, and connective tissue. Laser therapy also boosts oxygen — improving blood circulation — and the immune system. Brain maladies too? Yes, considering the treatment of a patient named Gabrielle for her troubles with eating and swallowing, nausea, balance, visual tracking, and memory after brain surgery. Doctors beamed light at portions of her head; she also gave herself daily light treatments at home. The treatments energized but also balanced the activity in Gaby’s brain. She now lives free of the problems that could have ruined her life forever.
In this age of distraction and unnatural environments and actions — like staring at screens all day — brain science offers all kinds of useful techniques to care for our infinitely complex selves. Norman Doidge’s work is a Michelin Guide to this hopeful new trove of knowledge and insight.
Charles Euchner, a case writer and editor at Yale School of Management, is the author of “Nobody Turn Me Around’’ and “The Big Book of Writing.’’