GROUNDBREAKING: Ragnar Purje is a pioneer with his brain plasticity research.
GROUNDBREAKING: Ragnar Purje is a pioneer with his brain plasticity research. Patrick Woods

Tradie turned medical pioneer

AS FAR back as he can remember, Dr Ragnar Purje has had an interest in human thinking, problem solving processes, critical thinking and analysis and the associated connection to brain functioning.

Little did he realise in his younger days that the years of study would lead him to bring world renowned Australian boxer John Famechon back from a near vegetative state after a horrific accident, in 1991, and also become an author and resilience coach. Ragnar can add adjunct lecturer and research higher degree/student supervisor at CQUniversity Australia to his credentials.

Having left school at the age of 16 to begin an apprenticeship, Ragnar could not have imagined his application of a new and novel form of acquired brain injury therapy would lead to in-depth research for his PhD later in life focusing on brain plasticity.

But Ragnar's road was not a straight forward one and it was during his time as an apprentice that Ragnar developed an interest in combat sports, something that he believed was inspired by his father who was a champion boxer in Estonia.

It initially led him to begin training in judo, then boxing and later again in Goju karate. Ragnar said his Goju karate training provided insights and the discipline to remain task focused and to commit himself to the pursuit of excellence.

"As a result of my Goju karate training and my academic studies I have determined that excellence is not an accident," he said.

"Excellence is crafted. Excellence is a deliberate, unrelenting, effortful and continuous self-motivating passionate process to applying the principle of focused hard work, the goal of which is to determinedly seek out and stretch goals and endless self-improvement.

"I did not know it at the time, of course. I am now however, very much aware that the transformative breakthrough, which eventually led to the development of what is now referred to in my PhD dissertation as complex brain based multi-movement therapy, began when, in January of 1970, I started training in the traditional and extremely demanding Chojun Miyagi and Gogen Yamaguchi martial art of Goju (HardSoft) style of Karate-Do (the way of the empty hand).

"Had I not started my Goju karate training, I would not have commenced my secondary night school studies, my tertiary studies, I would not have entered the teaching profession and neither would I have commenced my PhD studies."

Ragnar's Goju karate training led him to think about combining his training with academic studies and he began attending night school after work at University High School Melbourne, achieving his year 12 HSC (Higher School Certificate) which led him to start university studies.

"With a range of influences shaping my thinking, I ultimately came to the realisation that it was time to change my life's direction," he said.

"With the support of my wife Janet, I resigned my position as a tradesman. I then undertook full-time university studies, completing a Bachelor of Applied Science, majoring in physical education.

"This accomplishment led to other tertiary studies, which has, over the years, resulted in the following qualifications - two bachelor awards, one is PE while the other is psychology.

"I have also completed five post-graduate awards (two in the sports sciences, one in education, one in health counselling, and one in communication studies). Additionally, I have accomplished three master of education awards (one in education, one in guidance and counselling, and one in leadership and management).

"I have now completed my PhD in neuroscience at CQUniversity, under the valuable guidance of my principal supervisor professor Ken Purnell, and associate supervisor professor Kevin Ronan. But one thing I have realised, not only with my PhD thesis, but also in life is this 'if you do nothing, there is only one result: you achieve nothing'."

During his doctoral study, Ragnar worked with former world champion, world boxing hall of fame recipient, and Australian national boxing hall of fame legend John Famechon.

Ragnar, who is now based in Landsborough, began his therapy by simply opening and closing John's left fist, and then moving his fingers. Before long he was helping John lift his arm and then got him to do it by himself. Within three months, John was taking his first steps out of the chair. Before that John had been incapacitated for 28 months.

Through his study, Ragnar undertook meta-literature research in the area of brain plasticity, and brain injury rehabilitation that included the likes of, Norman Doidge, Barbara Arrowsmith-Young, Daniel Coyle, Guy Claxton, and many others. It was through Doidge, in his book The Brain That Changes Itself, that the discovery and the inherent universal actuality of brain plasticity is now thought of as being one of the most extraordinary discoveries of the 21st century.

Brain plasticity is a broad term for the property of the brain to change in response to external environmental pressures and internal (cognitive) experiences, for example and to also change at many levels from molecules to holistic cortical reorganisation.

"I first began to apply what was then a new and novel therapy in December of 1993 and, as a mentioned before, this is now referred to as complex brain based multi-movement therapy," Ragnar said.

"My research has informed me that the application of my novel form of therapy places this therapy into what may be considered as being pioneering in the area of brain plasticity therapy. My therapy would not have even commenced without the support and insights provided by Frank Quill and John and Glenys Famechon back in 1993.

"During a discussion with Frank in regards to John's shocking accident in 1991 I informed him that I thought I might be able to help John. This led to meeting John and was the start of this new and novel therapy that ultimately became my PhD dissertation.

"It is my contention now that the brain brings into existence our mind and our consciousness, and we now find, as argued in the literature, that our thinking and our actions can and actually does change the physical structures, of our brain; and if we change the physical structures of our brain, that means we can change our thinking, our behaviours and our life as a result of what we think, do, say, learn and choose.

"The more we study the brain the more insights we will make in terms of its potential and also in dealing with concerns that may arise if the brain, for whatever reason is injured.

"As I've also said, the research in the field of brain plasticity has found that the brain has always been pliable, ie, plastic and it means we can, as I said, change our brain's anatomical structure through our own thoughts and actions. This appears to have been the case with the research undertaken in my PhD dissertation."

Ragnar's research has also led to the development of two new descriptors in the field of brain plasticity rehabilitation and the brain and body dichotomy. The first is the word neurofluidity - a neurophysiological process that leads to the process of the ultimate condition of brain plasticity. The other term is the word holos - which brings together the brain and the body into one holistic unit.

"My hope is that my complex brain based multi-movement therapy may be considered as an additional support in the area of acquired brain injury rehabilitation. In addition to this, my hope is my doctoral study will also to lead to further research, not only in the field of acquired brain injury rehabilitation, and brain plasticity, but also in the field of education, teaching and learning.

"What Ken and I discovered during the course of this research is that we found that the learning experiences of John, the neurological changes that took place through his learning, involving deliberate thinking and actions as well as subconscious work, and my teaching (and his teaching me) will provide additional insights into improvements in learning and teaching in general that should be of interest to educators and learners alike.

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