Contributor corner: Will Storr

Will StorrWill Storr is a novelist and long-form journalist. His stories appear in broadsheet newspaper supplements such as the Observer MagazineSeven magazine (Sunday Telegraph), the Sunday Times Magazine and Guardian Weekend. He is a contributing editor at Esquire magazine and GQ Australia. His award-winning radio documentaries have been broadcast on BBC World. He has reported from the refugee camps of Africa, the war-torn departments of rural Colombia and the remote Aboriginal communities of Australia.

He has been named New Journalist of the Year and Feature Writer of the Year, and has won a National Press Club award for excellence. In 2010, his investigation into the kangaroo meat industry won the Australian Food Media award for Best Investigative Journalism and, in 2012, he was presented with the One World Press award and the Amnesty International award for his work for the Observer on sexual violence against men. In 2013, his BBC radio series An Unspeakable Act won the AIB award for best investigative documentary.

He is also a widely published photographer whose portraits of Lord’s Resistance Army survivors have been the subject of an exhibition at the Coin Street Gallery in London’s Oxo Tower.

Twitter: @wstorr

What is your feature about?

My feature is about this recent craze for neuroplasticity - the brain’s ability to change its own structure. There are loads of amazing claims made for neuroplasticity - everything from reducing dementia to making you love broccoli - so I went on a hunt for the truth. I found that surprisingly few of them stack up. But the story is not just about the reality of neuroplasticity, it’s also about what is, to me, an even more interesting question - why has it become a craze in the first place? How is it that a complicated book on the brain by an obscure Canadian psychotherapist – The Brain that Changes Itself by Norman Doidge – has sold over a million copies and has been published in more than 100 countries? It turns out that this narrative taps into a great desire people have in the west - a fantasy that we can be whatever we want to be. It’s the same fantasy that drove the craze for Neuro-Linguistic Programming back in the 1980s and that lead to the book Self Help by Samuel Smiles becoming a surprise bestseller back in the 19th century.  It’s the same fantasy, too, that’s driving a lot of the hyped claims that are being made, at the moment, for epigenetics. It’s about freeing us from our limitations and achieving our dreams.

What did you learn that you didn’t expect?

I was expecting a much more cynical take from the experts than I got. Actually, neuroplasticity really is an exciting area of science that goes against what many people thought prior to the 1990s. Contrary to what some commentators have implied, there really has been a change of mind on the scientific establishment as to how much the adult brain can change. So it’s not all hype. It’s based in truth. But the reality is, significant healing is only usually possible in people such as stroke victims if they’re relatively young, if they put in thousands of hours of tedious work and only because a part of their brain is ‘available’ for recovery. The ordinary person who believes that they can now achieve all their dreams, and become this fantasy version of themselves, just by training their brain in the right way, is only going to be disappointed. Sorry about that.

Read Will’s article on Mosaic from 17 November 2015.