She was graduate student in school psychology, but couldn’t tell the time on an analogue clock. She couldn’t understand most conversations in real time, having to play them back in her mind repeatedly to make any sense of them. She didn’t get jokes, or comprehend symbolism, metaphors or cause and effect.
To get through school, she got to know the library security guards’ patrol schedules so she could dodge them by hiding out in the washroom and then spend entire nights reading and re-reading her coursework. She’d relied on memorization her entire life.
This was until Barbara Arrowsmith-Young changed her brain.
“All of a sudden, the world opened up,” she says. “It’s profound. The brain is doing what it’s supposed to be doing in that moment to grasp what’s being said.”
Tips from Barbara Arrowsmith-Young on how to change your brain.
In all her reading and re-reading, Arrowsmith-Young had stumbled upon the work of a Russian psychologist named Aleksandr Romanovich Luria. In a book about a patient who’d been shot in the head during the Second World War, which included journal entries by the patient, Arrowsmith-Young recognized herself.
His descriptions of living in a fog, in which relationships like those between the two hands on a clock confounded him, mirrored her own experience. While she’d always had her “mental block,” as a teacher had once described it, Luria’s patient had a physical hole in his brain – in the left occipito-parietal region, to be precise.
She wondered whether this area was responsible for her deficiency. Soon after, she read about an American psychologist, Mark Rosenzweig, who showed that rats’ brains can change as a result of stimulation.
“’If a rat can change his brain,’ I thought, ‘perhaps a human can do the same,’” she writes in her book, “The Woman Who Changed Her Brain,” released today.
She developed an exercise that forced her to interpret the hands of an analogue clock. Instead of compensating for her weaknesses by using a digital clock, say, she forced herself to do what felt impossible – actually understand what the hands symbolized.
And it worked. Not only did she figure out how to tell time, but suddenly she started understanding conversations as they were taking place, and making sense of the conceptual ideas in her books that used to elude her.
Arrowsmith-Young went on to locate 19 brain area deficits, many of which she struggled with herself. She developed exercises to strengthen them, and founded the Arrowsmith Program and a private school in Toronto that tailor cognitive exercises to children with learning disabilities.
This was in the late 1970s and early 1980s, before neuroplasticity – the idea that the brain is elastic – became a widely accepted reality. This was a time when one’s intelligence was generally thought to be fixed for life.
But even now, while neuroscience has caught on to the fact that we can change our brains, many of the programs offered to help children with learning disabilities are lagging behind.
“In most traditional special education programs, the premise is that the learner’s fixed. The learner is the learner, with their strengths and weaknesses,” says Arrowsmith-Young. “The premise of our work is, we’re going to take this learner, and we’re going to change the capacity of the learner.”
If you walk into a classroom at Toronto’s Arrowsmith school, you’ll find kids puzzling over computer screens depicting complex, multi-handed clocks, in a variation of Arrowsmith-Young’s original cognitive exercise for her “symbol relations” deficit.
Rows of students wearing eye-patches over their left eyes and copying line after line of Chinese or Arabic characters are trying to repair their “motor symbol sequencing” deficit. And others sporting earphones and staring into space are working to improve their “memory for information” weakness.
The Arrowsmith Program is offered in various private schools in Canada and the United States, and by the Toronto Catholic School Board. Arrowsmith-Young hopes that one day tailored cognitive exercises will be integrated into all school curricula.
“School’s a place where you go to learn,” Arrowsmith-Young describes her vision, “and to sharpen your brain.”
It wouldn’t only benefit those with pronounced learning disabilities. Just about everyone could benefit from a little brain sharpening.
Barbara Arrowsmith-Young, director of the Arrowsmith School in Toronto and author of the new book, ‘The Woman Who Changed Her Brain, has isolated 19 cognitive deficits and developed brain exercises to overcome them.