Book Review: Michael Merzenich’s Soft-Wired

Soft-Wired: How the New Science of Brain Plasticity Can Change Your LifeSoft-Wired: How the New Science of Brain Plasticity Can Change Your Life by Michael Merzenich
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Soft-wired is an odd mix of relentlessly cheery home-spun wisdom and science. While the scientific basis for being able to change our brains for the better may have been proven, the advice oftens comes off as the regular stuff of self-help guides: make more friends, take up new hobbies, have a positive attitude.

We got this book as we’d read the best-seller, ‘The Brain That Changes Itself’, by Norman Doidge which referenced Merzenich and his online brain-training program, BrainHQ. I remember absolutely loving the book. It changed my received ideas about how the brain works. I had absorbed the common beliefs that the brain matures until is adult and then is unchangeable, basically, and then deteriorates.
So, I was pretty somewhat confounded to read that this was untrue, and excited to be given the evidence of a new perspective. The presentation of the new worldview and science was in the form of engaging case studies, and I was so inspired by the book that I joined, for a time, Merzenich’s online brain-training program, BrainHQ, and convinced myself to memorise a Bach prelude (as a challenge, and a way to exercise my brain).

But this book, Soft-wired, though on the same subject of brain plasticity, may be trying to make the same points as the other book, but is poorly written. The author tries to convey so much information that it is dizzying, and yet, the tone, sort of a carnival barker constantly exhorting about the wonders of the human brain, is tiring, particularly when it seems the end point is to promote his research, his institute or his brain-training programs. He even spends a chapter saying that he knows it looks like he is promoting his own programs, but that he really believes them, so it’s not really promoting them.
The case studies, which should be interesting, lack the detail that would bring them alive. The material, for a general reader, isn’t differentiated enough so starts to all melt together. And an assumption is made about the reader, that we are all seeking help for our brain problems and are all generally headed in the same direction, towards recovery and progress and self-improvement. It’s a nice idea, but it always feels condescending when you’re being lectured to.

In another section, he actually says that he is purposely trying to bore you as a reader to make a point. He succeeded in boring me but I lost the point, and instead from that point on began speed-reading. But then I followed one of the main pieces of his advice, which is try to pay attention, focus, and take in new information. So I impressed myself by managing to get to the end of this book. For you, dear reader, I’d say: don’t bother with this book. Read Doidge’s, and then if you love that one so much, and are truly inspired, probably as an older person, to keep your brain healthy, you could read this as a sort of follow-up, or perhaps just go to the BrainHQ and start on those brain exercises!

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