In The Brain That Changes Itself Norman Doidge, MD gives many impressive accounts of brains that changed. One example is about “phantom limb pain”, where severe, chronic pain seems to come from a limb that has in fact been amputated.
Doidge explains that the pain never does come from the limb, even when it’s there, but from the brain. What happens is that the brain continues to generate the pain that had occurred at the time of injury, and gets stuck with that pain signal following the amputation. The signals get stuck because the brain doesn’t get the opportunity to be updated, as it would have done if the limb had remained and healed.
One doctor came up with a remarkable solution. He had a large box constructed with a mirror that would go out at right angles from the person sitting at it. A man with phantom limb pain following an arm amputation sat at a table with the box, and put his existing arm out in front of him. With his head in just the right position, it seemed to him that he had two, perfectly good arms – even though they always moved in exactly the same way.
The man went home with the box and sat with it for ten minutes every day for four weeks. His eyes saw two healthy arms so that’s what registered in his brain, and that was enough to update his brain and stop the pain. This procedure has been duplicated by others, and physical changes in the brain confirmed through fMRI scans. (1)
Of course this isn’t an example about addictive behaviour, but it does demonstrate clearly that our brains can adapt in response to mental experience; they form networks as a result of certain experiences and readily reform them through other experiences. They are doing this all the time, and throughout life.
Doidge often points out that without this ability of our brains to adapt, we could never create addictive behaviour in the first place.