Tuesday, 29 April 2014

The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge

Oliver Sacks, he ain't. Despite the back cover blurb from Oliver Sacks, this is definitely a lesser book. There are some interesting things in here, and may be worth a read, even though there was one chapter that I thought was just terrible. But don't go looking here for Sacks' deep humanism and warmth. This is much more the distant case history, although the science he's talking about is fascinating.

(I also have a huge soft spot for Oliver Sacks, as he gave the commencement address at my undergrad graduation, and it was a wonderful speech about not being too attached to your plans, about making room for synchronicity and the unexpected.)

The Brain That Changes Itself is an examination of neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to change, and I found a lot of the ideas well worth engaging with. The scientists he profiled, and the work they were doing, were all very interesting.

The chapter on sexuality, though, is atrocious. Here, Doidge displays his hardcore Freudianism (this comes out in another chapter as well), and changes from reporting on actual studies to heavily anecdotal evidence, including the characterization of all kinds of sex except the most vanilla as "perversions." He makes strange claims about people who engage in s/m play with very little to back it up, and generalizes far too much. He tries to psychoanalyze a masochist about whom a documentary was made, based solely on the footage that made it into the final cut of the movie.

Doidge's attitude towards porn bears striking similarities to the temperance advocates I study, with the fatal first peek replacing the fatal first drop. He goes to great length to show that porn addiction is a real addiction, a compulsion, out of the control of the sufferers, but ends off the section by saying that once the sufferers in his practice were made aware of their addiction, they were all able to just stop watching porn.

And most problematic at all, in the entire chapter on sex, he treats sexuality as a male attribute. The people he relates anecdotes about are all male, although some of those people refer to women in their lives. If you just read this section at face value, it would seem like women don't have sexual desire, or sexual issues.

It really felt like a publisher said "you know what we need? A chapter on sex!" and made him whip one off. If it isn't that, it's simply sloppy writing that has far too little evidence for its actual claims (the citations for this chapter are mostly on incidental things.)

The book also ends abruptly, without a conclusion. I finished the last chapter and went looking for the conclusion, and nope, that was it. There's some good stuff in here, but avoid that chapter on sex like the plague.

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