Canadian woman writes book on how she changed her brain

Carolyn Morris
Shine OnMay 7, 2012

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.

Also see: Is boredom the new workplace stress?

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.

Also see: U.S. teen pregnancy rate down, but Canada's is still lower

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.

Related: The pursuit of happiness can make you less happy

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.

Watch the enlightening video below about childhood depression, and how to notice signs.

Final Goodbye - 'She Was The Love of My Life'

Burt Opens Up Finally About Sally Relationship.

Skirts and Shirts

Sally Field Gets Touching Last "Goodbye" From Burt

This will warm your heart.

Tour the Most Beautiful Sports Courts in the World

Hilton HHonors™ Card

Apply Today! Earn 50,000 Hilton HHonors™ Bonus Points. Terms Apply.

2016 Chevy Silverado 1500

Learn More About Chevy's Newest & Best...

Final touch on your dream home? Amica Insurance.

Love your insurance as much as you love your home. Switch and save today by combining Auto + Home for up to a 15% discount. Click for a free quote.

Top 10 Most Dangerous Dogs In The World

Here Are The Top 10 Most Dangerous Dogs In The World