Keyboard warrior

Two typos when putting the title in and a missed letter in this sentence. I can’t wait to get rid of this Bluetooth keyboard! The batteries keep running out, so unless you have some freshly charged up, you have to stop using it. (Of course you can’t charge them in the keyboard itself.) I have had four rechargeables in the charger for about 24 hours and none of them is charged! Thank goodness I have ordered a Samsung Galaxy S3 tablet with a proper keyboard cover. I had to order them separately, an intensive search not turning up a retailer who sold them both at a non-usurious price. Why didn’t I get a Windows convertible device like a Lenovo Yoga? We have a Chromecast and it is convenient to have an Android tablet with which to control it. Why not get an Apple tablet? See the previous comment. We both now also have Android phones, so are more invested in that ecosystem.

Now that I have that off my chest, I was intending to write a notice about Norman Doidge’s book The brain’s way of healing itselfThe title makes it sound a bit New Age, but Norman Doidge is a psychiatrist, researcher, author etc. In fact neuroplasticity is a pretty mainstream theory about the brain. It is based on the idea that the brain can change its own structure and function in response to mental experience. Consequently, brain functions such as movement can be controlled by regions of the brain that aren’t generally used in these functions. (One of the case studies featured a patient who had had his entire right brain hemisphere removed. He recovered the functions normally controlled by this hemisphere.) The blurb from the book describes it as the most important development in our understanding of the brain and mind since the beginning of modern science. 

This theory has a huge number of interesting applications in fields such as pain management, reduction in the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease and of MS. There is quite a bit also about the use of laser light in healing a large range of ailments, something used a great deal in the former Soviet Union. In fact chronotherapy was known to the ancient Greeks, and was revived by Florence Nightingale, who observed that patients healed faster and better in well lit rooms.

I expected the book to be quite theoretical. It does have chapters explaining the neural basis of neuroplasticity, but there are also quite lengthy case studies of people who have had treatments based on this idea to themselves. None is more fascinating than that of John Pepper. A successful businessman in South Africa, he was working long hours with a high amount of stress when he contracted Parkinson’s disease. The treatment of Parkinson’s in South Africa at that time was based on the theory that a PD patient could only deteriorate. This deterioration could be held at bay for a time with the use of the appropriate drug therapy, but this treatment was only delaying an inevitable decline.

Pepper was used to doing lots of exercise, but found that, as the disease progressed, he could do less and less. He sat in a chair for a year or two, feeling sorry for himself. Then he decided to try walking as a therapeutic exercise, and joined a group set up for that purpose in Capetown. He found that, if he walked in a very conscious way, so that he concentrated on avoiding the shuffling gait characteristic of Parkinson’s patients, his energy, co-ordination, and agility improved. When Norman Doidge met him, Pepper took him for a walk to a beach where penguins nested. They both scrambled through a narrow rocky passage and over huge boulders covered in slippery penguin dung. Pepper was in his seventies at the time. From this expedition and the conversations he had with John Pepper, Doidge was in no doubt that the latter was managing his condition in a remarkably successful way.

Subsequently, some neurologists have cast doubt on the idea that Pepper actually had Parkinson’s at all, holding that he instead had Parkinson’s syndrome, a related but less severe condition. This seemed to be based on the fact that he had improved functionality, something that was supposedly impossible for someone with full-blown PD. Ergo, he must not have PD. (This view is not held by all neurologists.) It would appear that the exercise was an important part of the lessening of his symptoms, but more so the strengthening of the neural pathways brought about by his concentration on how he was walking – a sort of applied mindfulness. Pepper does not call this a cure, and has never tried to encourage PD patients to stop taking their medication. His PD symptoms return to an extent when he is fatigued, stressed, or preoccupied; he is, however, much more mobile and energetic than before.

None of the therapies described in the book requires surgery or medication. (They don’t require cessation of the medications prescribed for the condition.) Patients using neuro-plasticity based therapies often need to practice them intensively and consistently. This obviously is a different way of healing than getting a prescription from a GP; it requires the patient actively to participate in their treatment. The book is not a diatribe against western medicine – Doidge is a GP and psychiatrist. All the discussion of medical matters in the book is well documented. Neither suspension of disbelief nor buy-in to any ideology or religion is required. This is a great book for anyone interested in being actively involved in their health.


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