Changing Your Mind (The Nature of Things): informative documentary on neural plasticity spoiled by breathless commercial presentation

Mike Sheerin, “Changing Your Mind (The Nature of Things)” (2010)

Hosted by David Suzuki, “Changing Your Mind” is an episode from the long-running science documentary “The Nature of Things” which is aired by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Seems funny in a way as the CBC is Canada’s equivalent of Australia’s ABC and the UK’s BBC so I sort of expected something less commercial in orientation and more impersonal. The emphasis in this program is on the recent discovery that the adult human brain is much more changeable or “plastic” as neuroscientists term it and the implications this has for our understanding of what the brain is capable of and what can affect it. One positive is that people, unlike old dogs, can continue learning new tricks and even compensate for limitations or damage once thought to be irreversible; the negative is that trauma and mental illnesses can affect the brain in ways that, once reinforced again and again, become major and chronic disorders that can severely limit quality of life and happiness.

First up, issues like obsessive compulsive disorder and repeated traumas such as childhood sexual abuse that cause post-traumatic stress disorder are dealt with through a narrative structure made up of several personal cases in which people explain their problems, how these arose and the treatment they sought to deal with the problems. The tone tends to be upbeat even in what seems to be hopeless and extremely traumatic and upsetting cases.

Knowledge of the brain’s chemical and neural plasticity has encouraged scientists to enquire into treating and even curing schizophrenia by changing the brain’s neural networks. Cognitive training using specially designed computer and video games that target problem-solving abilities and social cognition is shown to have promising results for treating and moderating some of the symptoms of schizophrenia.

While the episode is informative, it’s rather breathless in style and has the air of an infomercial which has the effect of making its topics and the people involved seem less serious than they really are. It’s just too upbeat for me: the treatments used to help and cure the conditions mentioned are presented as holy grails and anyone watching who has reservations about some of the treatments isn’t exactly encouraged to voice their criticisms. The section on schizophrenia which takes up half the film’s running time does show one patient saying she still takes her medicine. One constant irritant throughout the  doco is the overly dramatic music soundtrack which has the effect of drowning out some of the patients’ testimonies about their condition and its treatment.

The message that neural plasticity in the brain is not necessarily a good thing comes through clearly throughout the film and is reiterated in the film’s conclusion; understanding neural plasticity and using that to develop therapies to treat mental illness and disorders is our friend.

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