LEIGH FORBES: Books of all Sorts

Your Brain Knows More than you Think: the new frontiers of neuroplasticity

by Niels Birbaumer.

Niels Birbaumer writes about his research in the field of neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to learn new things), and the application of neurofeedback (learning to ‘shape’ the brain by using thought/reward techniques), to investigate such issues as locked-in syndrome, strokes, psychopathy, Parkinson’s disease, ADHD, autism, and addiction.

This book is obviously aimed at a popular readership, and to this end, Birbaumer strikes a good balance – presenting his information in a way that’s easy to understand, but without being patronising. However, a theme quickly develops: we’re repeatedly told how the pharmaceutical industry lets patients down with imperfect medication, and that no one’s paying enough attention to the author’s neurofeedback treatment – which he presents as an all-but miracle cure. It might be, but after the third or fourth time round this loop, it begins to feel like he has a chip on his shoulder. In addition, as so many of his arguments use research findings, it’s astonishing the text is so lightly referenced (also, there’s no index): we frequently learn that “recent studies show” or “research has shown” but with no way of knowing what studies, or the context in which they took place, or if they have been peer-reviewed. Some claims seem farfetched, if not outrageous, e.g. he writes, “Children with ADHD usually make their first contact with other children in kindergarten…” but provides no supporting evidence (and what about siblings, mother & baby/toddler groups, day care?). Continuing this example, he sets out how such children are little pyschopaths-in-the-making (according to a series of unreferenced studies); but it’s all okay, because neurofeedback can cure them. At this point, it all started to smack of snake-oil. 

The theories and findings revealed in this book are fascinating, and Birbaumer’s research really could be the ground-breaking solution we all need to free us from the clutches of big pharma, but this account was not rigorous enough for me to gain a full appreciation.

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