Interview with the Woman who Changed her Brain
Barbara Arrowsmith-Young life’s work has been a quest to develop programs that use the principles of neuroplasticity to strengthen underlying cognitive functions in the brain that impact learning. Today she can assess, and has programs to strengthen, 19 cognitive areas of potential learning dysfunction. In her book, The Woman Who Changed Her Brain: Stories of Transformation from the Frontier of Brain Science, she chronicle’s the brain’s ability to change. Through the practical application of the principles of neuroplasticity — simply put the brain’s ability to change as the result of mental exercise — we can change the brain’s capacity to learn and to function and this can happen throughout the lifespan.
Combining her own dramatic personal story with case histories from her three decades as a researcher and educator, Arrowsmith-Young unravels the mystery of how the brain mediates our functioning in the world.
SL: How did you come to realize you had severe learning disabilities?
BAY: In grade 1, at six years of age, I remember listening in quiet horror as my teacher informed my mother that I had a mental block and that I would never learn like the other children in my class. As children do, I understood this truth quite literally, believing that a chunk of wood was lodged in my brain. The teacher was almost right. The word block missed the mark, but blockage was pretty close. For the first twenty-seven years of my life, I lived in a dense fog.
I reversed numbers and letters, struggled with reading and writing, and could make no sense of the relationship between the big and little hands of an analogue clock. Asked to perform the simple addition of a small two-digit column of numbers, I would randomly choose numbers from the left or right side. The logic of basic math, the concept of telling time, the ability to truly comprehend what I was hearing or reading: all eluded me. On the playground, I couldn’t follow conversations or the rules of simple games. I could hear the words, but people might as well have been speaking a foreign language — as I was later to learn the part of my brain that interpreted meaning was not working properly, my translator was broken.
I was labeled “slow” and “difficult.” My first grade teacher, convinced I was being deliberately stubborn, administered the strap.
Some parts of my brain responded like a finely tuned musical instrument; others were not to be relied upon. There was no language then to describe my condition. The phrase learning disabled would not be coined until 1962 by a Chicago psychologist named Samuel Kirk and not come into common usage until the late 1970s. Fifty years ago, when I was a child, you were seen as smart or slow or somewhere in-between. The belief then was the brain you were born with was fixed and hardwired and so I was told I had best learn to adjust to my limitations.
I became a workaholic in grade one, studying before I left for school in the morning, over the lunch hour, and as soon as I got home from school, just to stay afloat in an incomprehensible world. I could not understand cause and effect, so felt buffeted by random events, unable to see the ‘why’ of things. As I advanced from grade to grade, the going got harder and I had to double and redouble my efforts.
Not only was I cut off from understanding the world of language, I had other brain deficits that meant I could not excel in sports. I would misjudge where my body was in space so constantly ran into things, bruised my body, chipped teeth and took stitches — my whole left side felt alien to me, almost as if I had suffered a stroke at birth. I had difficulty registering sensation on the left side of my body, was “accident-prone,” and a long series of mishaps had left a roadmap of scars on my body and my psyche.
I felt there was no arena in which I could be successful, there were no solutions on the horizon, there were periods of despair, and suicide was contemplated as a way to end the pain of the struggle.
SL: How did you manage to cope with your neurological deficits and eventually complete graduate-level studies?
BAY: Along with my crippling learning deficits, I was gifted in some areas. I had a verbatim auditory memory and a visual photographic memory. I came to rely on memory to absorb what was required to pass exams, literally memorizing my notes and textbooks and matching the exam question with what I hoped was the correct answer from my store of memorized information. I also was strong in what is now referred to as ‘executive functions’ — the myriad of processes that the prefrontal cortex, both in the left and right hemisphere, are responsible for. This was the engine that kept driving me to seek a solution to my problem and eventually lead me to put together the two lines of research I happened upon when in graduate school which provided the solution to my problem and became the basis of my life’s work.
SL: How did you connect neuroplasticity studies in animal models and humans to your own life?
BAY: In 1977, when I was twenty-five years old I happened upon a book The Man With a Shattered World: The History of a Brain Wound written by a Russian neuropsychologist, Alexander Luria, and began reading the account of Zazetsky, a Russian soldier who had suffered a brain wound. As I read his words, “I’m in a kind of fog all the time… All that flashes through my mind are images, hazy visions that suddenly appear and disappear.” This brain-damaged soldier was describing himself but he was also describing me. I was dumbstruck, I am living this man’s life I thought.
Neither of us could tell time. Trauma inflicted on a particular part of Zazetsky’s brain resulted in his losing the ability to tell time. But where a bullet had inflicted the damage on this soldier’s brain, I entered the world with my brain as part of my genetic baggage.
I now had an explanation for my years of struggle. Here was evidence that my learning disabilities were physical, with each one rooted in a specific part of my brain. This realization marked the turning point in my life. Despair turned into determination to hunt for a solution to this ‘brain’ problem.
The problem, for both Zazetsky and me, lay in the left hemisphere at the intersection of three brain regions — the temporal (linked to sound and spoken language), the occipital (linked to sight), and the parietal (linked to kinesthetic sensations). Both Zazetsky and I saw perfectly well and heard perfectly well; making sense of what we saw and heard was the issue.
During this time, I came across the research of American psychologist, Mark Rosenzweig, at the University of California at Berkeley. He demonstrated that the brain (of rats) can physically change in response to stimulation, what we now refer to as ‘neuroplasticity’. If a rat could change his brain as a result of very specific stimulation, I had to believe that a human could do the same. I married the work of Rosenzweig and Luria in order to create an exercise to change my brain.
I had no idea whether this might work, but I had nothing to lose but time. And this, I had already lost. Luria explained that people with lesions in this cortical region (the juncture in the brain of the parietal-occipital-temporal lobes) had difficulty telling time on an analogue clock. I wondered, therefore, if a clock-reading exercise might stimulate this part of my brain.
I created flash cards, not so different from the ones my mother had used with me in Grade 1 to teach me number facts. Since I could not accurately tell time, I had to use a watch and turn the hands to the correct time (with a friend’s help), and then draw the clock face. I would do the exercises every day for up to twelve hours a day, and as I got better at the task I made the flash cards more complex. The goal was to make my brain work exceedingly hard at interpreting relationships and over time what I found was that I could begin to interpret relationships in what I read and what I heard — and this had been impossible for me before doing this work.
SL: How did you apply your knowledge of neuroplasticity into the Arrowsmith School and Program?
BAY: When I saw the results of doing this mental exercise – being able to understand text as I read it, grasp conversations as they unfolded in real time, see points of logic in mathematics, follow reasoned arguments, all things that with the best effort in the world, I had never been able to do before, I knew something fundamentally had changed in my brain to allow me to grasp and process relationships. I knew there was beneficial value in putting together Luria’s work of identifying the function of different brain areas and Rosenzweig’s work of stimulating function, and went on to create exercises to work the function of other areas that had caused me problems – my penchant for getting lost (even in buildings) to my lack of coordination and clumsiness that led to lots of physical injuries. As I worked my way through these mental exercises, I saw changes specific to function of these areas – I could read maps, create maps inside my head, navigate through space without getting lost and I could move through narrow spaces without bumping into things, I could use the left side of my body in an efficient and coordinated manner, no more accidents.
This then became my quest, to apply what I had learned from my own experience, to use this research to create additional exercises to stimulate and strengthen more and more cognitive functions, with some of these creations being discarded, until I developed programs for a broad range of problems (19 to date) covering auditory memory, memory for symbols, memory for objects and faces, motor planning in writing, sense of number/quantification, non-verbal interpretation, reasoning, thinking/strategizing/ problem solving, kinesthetic perception of the body in space, spatial reasoning and mechanical reasoning.
In 1978 I began applying these programs to children struggling with learning disorders in an after school program and in 1980 I founded a private school to further develop, refine and deliver programs to children, adolescents and adults. The program continues to be refined based on the performance of the thousands of individuals who have been involved in the work.
The philosophy that the learner is not fixed, but can be modified through the application of the principles of neuroplasticity sets the Arrowsmith Program apart from the majority of other programs for students with learning difficulties. The Arrowsmith Program is capacity based in that it changes the cognitive capacity of the student to learn, rather than compensatory which tries to work around the problem. Strengthening these weaker capacities increases the overall functioning of these specific cognitive areas, allowing them to be used more effectively for learning.
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