The Woman Who Changed Her Brain

Toronto writer, Sarah Barmak, wrote a great review of a book by Barbara Arrowsmith-Young titled “The Woman Who Changed Her Brain And Other Inspiring Stories of Pioneering Brain Transformation.” Barmak wrote:

The biggest paradigm shift in the science of the brain over the past 30 years, neuroplasticity banished the belief that the brain is an unchanging machine that is hardwired in childhood. We now know that the brain is dynamic, plastic, constantly remoulding itself – an immeasurable discovery for sufferers of several ills, including stroke, pain and even obsessive-compulsive disorder.

From the introduction to Arrowsmith-Young’s book:

Barbara Arrowsmith-Young was born with severe learning disabilities that caused teachers to label her slow, stubborn—or worse. As a child, she read and wrote everything backward, struggled to process concepts in language, continually got lost, and was physically uncoordinated. She could make no sense of an analogue clock. But by relying on her formidable memory and iron will, she made her way to graduate school, where she chanced upon research that inspired her to invent cognitive exercises to “fix” her own brain.

Recent discoveries in neuroscience have conclusively demonstrated that, by engaging in certain mental tasks or activities, we actually change the structure of our brains—from the cells themselves to the connections between cells. The capability of nerve cells to change is known as neuroplasticity, and Arrowsmith-Young has been putting it into practice for decades. With great inventiveness, after combining two lines of research, Barbara developed unusual cognitive calisthenics that radically increased the functioning of her weakened brain areas to normal and, in some areas, even above-normal levels. She drew on her intellectual strengths to determine what types of drills were required to target the specific nature of her learning problems, and she managed to conquer her cognitive deficits.

Starting in the late 1970s, she has continued to expand and refine these exercises, which have benefited thousands of individuals. Barbara founded Arrowsmith School in Toronto in 1980 and then the Arrowsmith Program to train teachers and to implement this highly effective methodology in schools all over North America. Her work is revealed as one of the first examples of neuroplasticity’s extensive and practical application. The idea that self-improvement can happen in the brain has now caught fire.

What inspired me was the idea of a person having the discipline and stubbornness to overcome considerable challenges. As a coach and instructor I have consistently told Black Belts and others in similar roles that the most important ingredient for success is the willingness to put in the work rather than going through work and life accepting things, especially their own situation, and creating self-imposed limitations. There are those who simply roll-up their sleeves, practice, and work at things until they succeed. Barmak writes:

…at one time could not see the relationship between the large and small hands of a clock. Until her late 20s, she could not understand news broadcasts, which went too fast for her to grasp. Thanks to problems at the intersection of the temporal, occipital and parietal lobes in her brain’s left hemisphere, the world was a jumble of unrelated parts.

The clocks were her “Aha!” moment. Twenty-seven and unable to tell time, Arrowsmith-Young forced herself to draw clock faces. She drew the hour hand and the minute hand, willing her mind to grasp the relationship between them. One completed, she drew another. And another.

“I would do the exercises every day for up to twelve hours a day,” she writes. “The work I did with flash cards activated that moribund part of my brain, getting the neurons to fire in order to forge new neural pathways.”

Mere months later, she found herself looking at her watch not with despair, but understanding.

Arrowsmith-Young relied on no surgeon or doctor but herself. Hers was and is a singularly determined mind that pulled itself up by its bootstraps – those bootstraps being her extraordinary memory, which was in the 99th percentile, and her powerhouse work ethic.

Arrowsmith-Young explains some of the most complex neurological concepts in a personal and breathtakingly simple way. Her simplicity is organic: She’s no scientist artificially dumbing down her research for the layman. She had to break down these ideas for herself first, and she’s now passing on the fruit of her difficult years of labour.

Draining her savings account, she and her then-husband founded a school, Arrowsmith, in 1980, filling it with Salvation Army furniture. She invented new exercises, working on her own learning challenges and her students’ at the same time.

Arrowsmith’s reputation grew with the numbers of graduates. Today, there are 35 Arrowsmith Programs in schools all over Canada and the United States, with more soon to launch.

Arrowsmith-Young wraps up her account of her work with a bold vision for the future: an education system with cognitive exercises as a core part of general instruction. Built-in programs would boost the abilities of challenged kids, and benefit every other student as well.

“Cognitive exercises, utilizing the principles of neuroplasticity, will become an integral part of each school’s curriculum,” she writes. “There is beauty and majesty in this work, and I am passionate about its ability to change and improve lives.”

Considering that Arrowsmith-Young is a living example of her dream, it is hard not to hope it some day becomes real.