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Interview with NY Times Best-Selling Author, Dr. Norman Doidge


This Week in Research: Dr. Norman Doidge

Norman Doidge, M.D., is first and foremost a clinician, an integrative thinker. He is a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, but also researcher, author, essayist and poet. He will be visiting Laurentian University on January 26th. A member of the faculty at the University of Toronto’s Department of Psychiatry, as well as the Research Faculty at Columbia University’s Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research, in New York. Dr. Doidge is also the author of two breakthrough New York Times Bestsellers, The Brain’s Way of Healing and The Brain That Changes Itself.

In the past, Dr. Doidge served as Head of the Psychotherapy Centre and the Assessment Clinic at the Clarke Institute of Psychiatry, and is also an experienced professor who taught in the departments of Philosophy, Political Science, Law and Psychiatry at the University of Toronto.

Along with his highly acclaimed and widely published work on neuroplasticity and the brain, he has published work on: trauma, problems in love, psychiatric diagnoses and the efficacy of intensive psychotherapies.

Dr. Doidge is recognized for winning a number of scientific awards including:

  • In 2010, U.S. Dana Brain Foundation’s journal Cerebrum editors and readers chose The Brain that Changes Itself from among 30,000 books written on the brain, as “the best general book on the brain.”
  • Special Recognition Award, Brain Injury Canada
  • The American Psychoanalytic Association’s CORST Prize in Psychoanalysis and Culture;
  • Election to the American College of Psychoanalysts for “many outstanding achievements in psychiatry and psychoanalysis… and national leadership in psychiatry.”
  • In 2008, winner of the Mary S. Sigourney Prize, the highest award in international psychoanalysis in that literature.


Transcribed interview with Dr. Doidge:


1. Q. What question or challenge were you setting out to address when you started this work?

A: the earliest clinical challenge I looked at was learning disabilities. I had a clinic at the University of Toronto, where I encountered many patients who were experiencing a crash and burn upon entering university .These were people who had done well in secondary schools (high schools) but when the workload increased and stress levels increased, they were having a crash a burn, and showing the cognitive limitations that are caused by learning disorders. Now, learning disorders were not often discussed in discussed in adult psychiatry. These were people whose disorders had not been detected as children because they were bright. I also met with professors who were also experiencing these disorders. They had suffered greatly through their Ph.D.s, but the pressure got them through, and now that the pressure wasn’t quite so great, they had enormous difficulty writing and publishing. 
The teaching about learning disabilities, up until very recently, was that they were hardwired into the brain and that there was nothing that could be done; people were told that they must learn to work around them.  And there are ways to do so. For example, if you had a problem mentally visualizing maps and space, and had to travel somewhere, you would instead look out for landmarks on the way. That uses a different brain area. If you were a student in school who had an auditory processing problem and couldn’t take in lectures, you would tape record the lectures and laboriously transcribe them later that evening over hours; or in some cases you would be told to hire someone else take the notes for you! These were called compensations, and were ways of working around the problem. However, I was not totally persuaded that the brain was completely hardwired. While I was trained at Columbia University, work by Eric Kandel there, showed that when animals learn, changes are made in little connections between the neurons, the nerve cells, and called the synapses. In the 1800s, Freud had postulated that learning leads to changes in the nervous system, and in the year 2000 Kandel of Columbia was given the Nobel Prize for proving exactly that.
So I began to explore techniques that claimed to take kids with learning disorders and train their brains to overcome these disorders.  I saw that they were working, and from there I was off to the races. 


2.  Q: Is there controversy in the area of your studies? Other schools of thought?

A: The view of the brain that we had for the last 400 years was that the brain was like a machine, made of parts, and that each mental function has  a single location in the brain, in one of these parts. This mechanistic model saw the brain as electrical and thus a hardwired machine. This is where we got the term “hardwired”. People began to use “hardwiring” to meaning a combination of genetic pre-determinism (that our genes determine the structure of our brains) and that the circuitry, once laid down by genetic instructions, is unchangeable. (Machines do many glorious things, but they do not grow new parts and they do not rearrange themselves.) Now I’m not saying that there isn’t anything to that analogy, but I’m saying that it is only an analogy, and it is incomplete to the point of being misleading in important I’m not saying that there aren’t aspects of the brain that are pre-determined, because there are. But other aspects can be influenced by mental activity: we can literally change the connections between the neurons, and modify the “wiring” with mental activity and experience.  But as long as we were smitten by the machine metaphor, we couldn’t see this. So we did not try to create methods to test that hardwiring hypothesis by seeing if we could change the brain’s wiring. It turns out that in many areas we can in fact change this. And it turns out that not only can the brain change, but that this is how the brain functions when learning! 

3. Q: What is it like to be a two-time New York Times Best Selling author?

A: It feels good. This happening suggest to me that an intuition that I had a some time ago, that one way of the best ways to  live is to follow your interests, even if one doesn’t know where they are leading, has merit The emphasis is on follow. Follow your interest. Our interest is often, after all, stirred up by things we may not understand. Years ago, I had the recurring experience of being in a bookstore and perhaps in the philosophy section, and reaching for a particular book for reasons I did not know, and it so often turned out that that the title I reached for   was exactly what I had needed in that moment. I couldn’t have explained to you why that title contained various arguments, buried within, that helped solved the problem I was working on.  It was a true hunch, by which I mean, I couldn’t give a full explanation for it. I believe that true science has many stages. The earliest stage where major innovations happen is all about curiosity and wonder, and hunches, and it’s about opening questions not closing them. The public has an idea that science is doesn’t work on hunches as all. This is what I call “consumer science.” It was reinforced by President Kennedy saying to the nation and its scientists, “say we want a man on the moon,” and then scientists, confidently and systematically put together the science and machines, and we put a man on the moon. The politicians declare “war” on a particular disease, then that disease is “defeated”.  It’s all a matter of devoting enough resources to get results. Those things sometimes work, it worked with AIDS, but more often than not they don’t. Well, we’ve poured tons of resources into Alzheimer’s and its still not solved. Real cutting edge science studies what we don’t know. That’s why it’s cutting edge. So, what is the attitude towards what we don’t understand? Confidence? No. Curiosity.

I think that the fact that my books have been best sellers shows that the public has a profound interest in this mind-brain area as well.  I was once speaking to the Nobel Prize winning novelist Saul Bellow, and I asked him about certain feral parrots appearing in Chicago at the end of one of his books, and wanted to know the meaning of this. Was that some kind of symbolism? He said, “No, it happened, in reality, and it interested me. If it interests me, I think, maybe it will interest someone else.” In both my books I’ve followed my interest, and it turned out to interest others. We are after all the same species. 


4. Q: What does it feel like to have your fields of study placed more in the mainstream consciousness with the recognition you’ve received?  

A: It feels good to me, specifically because I know there are a number of people are being told, by people who don’t appreciate what neuroplasticity has to offer, that they can’t be helped, when they might be. That is not to say that neuroplasticity can help any and all conditions, but there are a large number of disorders, that I describe them in my books, that can be helped, or managed using neuroplasticity techniques. 


5.  Q: What is the most challenging part of your career as both a clinician and an author?

A:  It can’t be reduced to simply one thing. Clinical work, writing, researching topics, all involve a number of stages, and each has its challenges.


6. Q: With that in mind what are your goals in your respective fields? 

A: In terms of neuroplasticity, there are just so many good approaches out there, in various enclaves, that are not yet widely available, which I am trying to bring attention to, and help people understand, so that they do become widely available. There are certain conditions like traumatic brain injury for which we really have had no treatment.  For example, if someone sustained a major brain trauma, and lost a key function such as multi-tasking but was still mobile and high functioning; we would suggest rest and hope the ability resurfaces. Around 80% would recover, but 20% didn’t, and we had nothing for them. And now I’m putting together a suite of nine different approaches for traumatic brain injury. What I’m trying to do now is define the order in which to try these approaches should be applied in order to save time and resources and potentially spare suffering. My second book, The Brain’s Way of Healing, tried to for the first time, to describe the different stages of neuroplastic healing. This is so that when treating a patient there is a rational for choosing which treatment to start with, rather than simply choosing one that may have worked on a separate occasion with another patient. I’m trying to do that for the autistic spectrum, and learning disorders as well.
On another level, I’m a psychoanalyst. According to what I read in the news I am supposed to be ashamed of that supposedly defunct profession but I actually think that psychoanalysis provides profound insights into life, self-deception, narrative, into the unconscious affecting our lives. The leading neuroscientists I know, all appreciate that what their science is showing is that indeed, most of our emotional, and cognitive processing is unconscious, that childhood trauma affects brain structure, and that many of Freud’s insights were very much ahead of their time. In the future I hope to be doing more on understanding how unconscious activity affects our lives. 


7.  Q:  Who were the thinkers or influences you have had with regards to the Psychoanalysis? 

A:  There really are so many, Freud on defenses, transference, dreams, Donald Winnicott on childhood, Melanie Klein,, Vamik Volkan, Eric Marcus on near psychosis, Edward Whitmont on dreams, Bowlby on attachment, Leonard Shengold on childhood trauma. I have read very widely in psychoanalysis and I find that has improved my ability to make observations.