Norman Doidge, plasticity, and eyesight

Perhaps you’ve heard about Dr. Norman Doidge’s latest book, The Brain’s Way of Healing. Dr. Doidge (pronounced ‘Dodge,’ I believe) is a psychiatrist and psychotherapist who has turned himself into Dr. Oliver Sacks, meaning he likes to write about interesting patient stories from the frontiers of neurology. His first book was titled The Brain That Changes Itself.

The concept of brain plasticity (the discovery that the brain is able to form new neural pathways), Doidge informs us, has been been around since the 1970s but only began to enter the public consciousness in 2006. That appears about right to me, as in early 2004 Chris’s psychiatrist told my husband and me that his brain was sort of like rapidly solidifying concrete that needed to be ‘protected’ from further rigidity and loss of neurons through the administration of neuroleptic drugs. That theory had already bit the dust but somehow the psychiatrists at the Centre for Addition and Mental Health didn’t receive this message. I won’t go into how pessimistic the concrete brain concept was in comparison to plastic brain concept, but it still grates how much damage was done by their telling us that Chris’s brain was damaged. That and the schizophrenia diagnosis. Horrible. I’m still not convinced “schizophrenia” is a brain problem, in any case.

I’m not sure what Dr. Doidge’s position is on schizophrenia. It’s interesting that a person who is a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst by training doesn’t address schizophrenia as a topic in either of his two books. That’s like a priest who writes about religion failing to mention God. Is it because he doesn’t think schizophrenia is a problem with one’s brain and he is aware that lots of people recover from this condition so there is nothing neuronally (is this a word?) intriguing about it? If so, he would do us all a favor by saying so! I’m in the process of putting my question to him in a letter. (Of course, it’s also possible he prefers writing about neuroplasticity rather than dealing with patients. He wouldn’t be the first doctor to reposition himself as far away from his patients as possible,)

One of the chapters in the book is on how a blind man got his sight back relying on the Feldenkrais method. I’ve made a few efforts in the past to get my sight back to 20/20, but didn’t see a lot of progress so I stopped doing the exercies. I’ve bathed my eyes by staring at the sun with my eyes closed, I’ve rotated them clockwise and counterclockwise, but the Feldenkrais contribution I read about added something new that I think is key. Doing this exercise for a couple of days noticeably strengthened my peripheral vision. Having better peripheral vision is a huge confidence booster. I even did the grocery shopping without once putting on my specs!

An Amsterdam wedding

We went to a wedding in Amsterdam this week-end (friends of the bride). The bride really likes Chris, so he came, too. The wedding was held in an artists’ club. The groom is a sausage artist. No joke. Apparently, there is an international movement or society of sausage art.

Since the crisis with Chris, I find I have more in common than not with the arty crowd. Brief conversation with a guest: “And what do you write about?” I asked him. “Insanity,” he answered before moving on. Lots of common ground here.

Chris dutifully stuck with us for most of the time and then slipped away to discover Amsterdam on foot after dark. We all know what that might involve.

On our last day in Amsterdam, Chris and I sat at a sidewalk cafĂ© enjoying the warm sun and a cold Amstel beer. I noticed, as I have from time to time, that Chris wasn’t wearing his glasses yet seemed to have no problem seeing, so I asked him if he could read a sign on a building on Johnny Jordaan Plein, and something in between us and the building, and could he read the tourist pamphlet he was holding. No problem.

“So, Chris, if you can read all of this, why are you wearing glasses?”

“Well,” he said, “I was in ninth grade and I was worried that I wasn’t keeping up academically with the others, and somebody suggested maybe I should have my eyes checked. Now that I think of it, maybe I ended up getting them because the store just wanted to sell me glasses, but when I put on the glasses, I also felt more intelligent.”

“Be that as it may, Chris, but that was the year when you changed both continents and school systems. You ended up actually a year ahead based on your birthday. You had some catching up to do as you could have gone either way grade wise.” What I didn’t mention was that he got a needed academic wake-up call, as he had been quite a slacker before that.

“Hmm, Mom, I wonder if I’ve been using the glasses as a crutch, just like the doctors in the early psychosis program said about the meds being a crutch.”

“Possibly, Chris. In any case, you don’t need glasses to prove your intelligence. Also (I thought of our recent Family Constellation), just because your father wears glasses, doesn’t automatically mean you need glasses. You’re not your father. You don’t have to take on your image of him. You’re you. You’re free to be yourself.”

“But, I’ve been wearing them for twelve years already.”

“You could try not wearing your glasses for a while and see what happens.”

It makes me wonder if he is beginning to “see” things more clearly, meaning that sometimes we wear unnecessary ideas or affect appearances that are not us. We unconsciously think this is how we are expected to be because of a parent. The vision thing is not without precedent in our family and makes me think that glasses are overprescribed, particularly in the country where we currently live. Frames here cost a fortune. Chris’s youngest brother, Taylor, was also prescribed glasses in fourth grade when Ian and I rejected putting him on Ritalin for non-existent Attention Deficit Disorder. We did, however, concede at that time that there was a possible eyesight problem. He was prescribed the usual expensive glasses (and spare pair), and after that he never wore them. That was a medicalizing or “optometrizing” of a childhood behavior.

All of us are fooled at some level. It may take us years to see, keeping in mind that the new vision is, in itself, just another shifting reality.