Before neuroscientists had fully wrapped their heads around the reality of neuroplasticity — that old brains can learn new tricks — Barbara Arrowsmith-Young was already developing cognitive exercises for children with learning disabilities.
She is the co-founder of the Arrowsmith Program, and her system is used in several private schools in Canada and the United States, as well as the Toronto Catholic School Board.
In her new book, The Woman Who Changed Her Brain, she describes how she had managed to get to graduate school, despite never overcoming her major learning disabilities.
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As a graduate student at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, she could not tell time on an analogue clock, understand jokes or sarcasm, nor grasp most regular conversations in real time.
To keep pace academically, she would spend nights in the library, having learned the security guards' patrol routes in order to dodge them. She relied on memorization, and reading important texts repeatedly in order to squeeze some meaning from them.
"I did have very good frontal lobes," she says. That's the part of the brain that drives and problem solves. "So I was constantly pushing, trying to understand what was wrong."
She got closer to that understanding when she read (and re-read) a book by a Russian psychologist, Aleksandr Romanovich Luria. One of his patients had been shot in the head in the Second World War, and in extensive descriptions of his conditions, Arrowsmith-Young recognized her own disabilities. She wondered whether the area he'd been shot — the left occipito-parietal region of the brain — could be the zone of her weakness.
Then, she read that Mark Rosenzweig, a late American psychologist, had shown that rats' brains will change in response to stimulation.
"'If a rat can change his brain,' I thought, 'perhaps a human can do the same,'" she writes in her book.
She devised an exercise where she'd force herself to read the hands of an analogue clock, something she'd never been able to master. After months of drilling herself with the clock exercise, her world started to change. She started understanding conversations and make sense of her books on the first read.
"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."
Arrowsmith-Young went on to develop exercises for 19 different brain deficits, many of which she'd suffered from herself.
She developed her exercises before neuroplasticity was a widely accepted concept, at a time when the brain was still thought to be fixed for life. But even now that neuroscientists have shown the brain is indeed elastic, many of the programs for children with learning disabilities focus on compensation.
"In most traditional special education programs, the premise is that the learner's fixed. However, the premise of our work is that we're going to take this learner and change their capacity," says Arrowsmith-Young.
She hopes that tailored cognitive exercises will eventually be standard in all schools.
"School's a place where you go to learn and to sharpen your brain," " Arrowsmith-Young describes her vision.
And it wouldn't only benefit students with major learning disabilities. Most of us could probably use a little brain sharpening.
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