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Criticisms of The Brain That Changes Itself

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  • Book Criticisms of The Brain That Changes Itself

    With the PR machine ramping up to promote Norman Doidge's newest book, I thought I'd get some criticisms of his previous book off my chest. Although the following list isn't exhaustive, here are some of my deepest cuts:
    • The premise of the book is fallacious
    • Overt promotion of psychoanalysis
    • Covert revisionism of Freud
    • Sex-negative positions
    • Anti-Darwinian nonsense

    Okay, so it's good for people to know that the brain is plastic, and inspirational anecdotes are inspirational. But is the contribution positive if it is also a source of misinformation?

    The premise is fallacious
    Doidge clearly presents localizationism (the school that asserts that specific brain structures are responsible for particular brain functions) as the foil of neuroplasticity. But the opposite of plasticity is rigidity. Any proponents of neurorigidity out there? Even 100 years ago, did people think that the brain was a fixed structure from birth? The book is predicated on a straw man fallacy.

    Actually it's predicated on two straw man fallacies -- the idea that learning entails neuroplastic mechanisms is entirely uncontroversial, as PZ Myers explains (in an exciting froth of angry-scientist-sounds, and no, he's not just jealous of Doidge!)

    As well, Doidge routinely refers to brain anatomy whenever it shores up his authority -- but the identification of brain anatomical features is only meaningful if one entertains some amount of localizationism. Speaking of shoring-up authority...

    The book is a covert ad for psychoanalysis
    Few scientists consider psychoanalysis to be scientifically supported. It's a theory of mind, not a theory of brain, and there is no evidence for mind. By decorating a large amount of psychoanalytic ideas with a neuroscience veneer, Doidge attempts to encapsulate his favorite therapeutic discipline in hard science. Unless you're going to see Merzenich or Ramachandran as an experimental subject, the book offers psychoanalysis as an accessible way to tap into neuroplastic learning.

    The book covertly revises Freud
    I respect Freud's role in the history of psychology, but that doesn't mean I have to endorse psychology or consider Freud a scientist. Why was Freud "the first neuroplastician"? Why does Doidge assert that "...[W]hat [Freud] said about the early stages of sexual development conforms to what we know about critical [developmental] periods." (p. 99 of softcover edition.) Oh does it?

    When he's writing as an out-of-the-closet psychoanalyst, Doidge openly refers to all the non-procreative (and non-romantic) forms of sexual gratification as "perversions." He openly speculates that people copulate with sheep because of a childhood trauma, and not, for example, because sheep are placid animals that are easily abused. He also refers to BDSM practices as intrinsically pathological. He also says that, because viewing pornography can shift one's sexual interests, that this justifies an epidemiological approach to the scourge of gratified voyeurism. By explicitly advocating Freudian models of sexual development and health, and claiming that hard science supports those models, Doidge earns his "huckster of neuroplasticity" badge that Myers oh-so-freely lavishes.

    Anti-Darwinian hogwash
    This one's missed by most. In an appendix, Doidge claims that neuroplasticity affords a mode of non-Darwinian evolution. Because culture shapes 'mind' and because culture evolves in a quasi-Lamarckian fashion, Doidge claims that human evolution is non-Darwinian. As if our primary adaptations haven't been cultural (like language) and as if the ability to bear culture is something inconsistent with Darwin (if he had actually read Darwin instead of caricaturing evolution as a simple "survival of the fittest, driven by mutation-selection.") Like Freud, Darwin approached natural phenomena with the best of his ability, and like Freud, Darwin devised radically elegant explanations for the phenomena. But unlike Freud, Darwin's theories were amenable to falsification, and are still vastly successful and viable under the scientific method.
    Last edited by rydog; 25-04-2015, 09:04 PM. Reason: more delicate wording
    Ryan MB Hoffman, PhD
    Guild Certified Feldenkrais Practitioner

  • #2
    more detailed review, with page references

    I've attached a more detailed review.

    It's 'published' here:
    Attached Files
    Ryan MB Hoffman, PhD
    Guild Certified Feldenkrais Practitioner


    • #3
      I'm surprised you got anything up on FeldSciNet. I've applied numerous times over the years for membership. Haven't once been given the courtesy of a follow up email response.

      Haven't read Doidge's work but given the gushing over-enthusiasm by some in the FM community re: his latest book, I've had my doubts.
      Last edited by Dan84; 31-10-2015, 05:09 AM.
      Tactile Raconteur


      • #4
        I'm concerned and slightly surprised. If one needs membership to read the articles and they're overly restrictive, this is a really bad sign. So I'm glad I posted my review here.
        Ryan MB Hoffman, PhD
        Guild Certified Feldenkrais Practitioner


        • #5
          Thank you for posting your review Ryan.

          For anyone interested, here is Ginger Campbell's interview with Doidge about his second book. BSP 116: Norman Doidge on Brain Plasticity. It's free access, until the end of the year, I think.

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          • #6
            This book is well worth reading ! :thumbs_up