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The Woman Who Changed Her Brain: And Other Inspiring Stories of Pioneering Brain Transformation

The Woman Who Changed Her Brain: And Other Inspiring Stories of Pioneering Brain Transformation

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by Barbara Arrowsmith-Young, Norman Doidge

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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


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. The Woman Who Changed Her Brain interweaves her personal tale with riveting case histories from her more than thirty years of working with both children and adults.

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.

The Woman Who Changed Her Brain powerfully and poignantly illustrates how the lives of children and adults struggling with learning disorders can be dramatically transformed. This remarkable book by a brilliant pathbreaker deepens our understanding of how the brain works and of the brain’s profound impact on how we participate in the world. Our brains shape us, but this book offers clear and hopeful evidence of the corollary: we can shape our brains.

Editorial Reviews

Daily Mail
The Guardian (UK)
Mira Bartók
“Arrowsmith-Young's poignant and uplifting book about her transformation from a child born with severe learning disabilities to a dynamic pioneer in cognitive education offers hope to anyone who has ever struggled with a learning disorder, brain trauma, ADD or stroke... an important book.”
Elkhonon Goldberg
“This is a poignant book about two people who connected across continents and generations—a Canadian woman Moving, insightful and empowering!”
Alvaro Fernandez
"If you have a son, a daughter, a parent, a spouse, or a brain, this is a must-read book. It will open your mind to new possibilities on how to deal with 'traffic jams in the brain.'"
CNN - Michael Schulder
"Hers was a struggle between despair and determination. Determination won."
From the Publisher
“Arrowsmith-Young's poignant and uplifting book about her transformation from a child born with severe learning disabilities to a dynamic pioneer in cognitive education offers hope to anyone who has ever struggled with a learning disorder, brain trauma, ADD or stroke. By her own fierce determination and passionate desire to learn, this remarkable woman changed her own brain and has since helped countless others to change theirs. This is an important book.”
—Mira Bartók, New York Times bestselling author of The Memory Palace

“This is a poignant book about two people who connected across continents and generations—a Canadian woman with an unusual cognitive makeup, and the great Russian neuropsychologist Alexander Luria whose writings gave Barbara Arrowsmith the tools to change her own life and the lives of her many students. Moving, insightful and empowering!”
—Elkhonon Goldberg, Ph.D., the author of The Wisdom Paradox and The New Executive Brain

"If you have a son, a daughter, a parent, a spouse, or a brain, this is a must-read book. It will open your mind to new possibilities on how to deal with 'traffic jams in the brain.'"
—Alvaro Fernandez, CEO & Co-Founder, SharpBrains.com

Kirkus Reviews
A pioneer in the treatment of learning disabilities describes how she diagnosed her own mental disability and created unique exercises to retrain her brain. Arrowsmith-Young's goal is to train educators--her method is now taught at more than 30 schools in the United States and Canada--and create tailor-made cognitive exercises for students at her Toronto school. The author chronicles how she overcame her inability to conceptualize causality despite having excellent audio and visual memory. She could "make no sense of the relationship between the big and little hands of an analogue clock." Even simple arithmetic was beyond her capability, and her reading comprehension was poor. She had difficulty following conversations, catching only fragments at a time and then replaying them in her head later. By dint of her "singular work ethic and gritty determination to succeed," she stumbled through school by relying on her phenomenal memory to compensate for her disabilities. While studying child behavior in graduate school in the late 1970s, Arrowsmith-Young discovered a book by Soviet neuropsychologist Aleksandr Luria, in which the author described his work with brain-injured World War II veterans. She was amazed to find that many of their symptoms paralleled her own, and she also learned about rats whose brains showed physical change as a result of being placed in stimulating environments. Consequently, the author devised a series of increasingly complex exercises, drilling herself with flash cards showing the hands of a clock in different positions. Her success in increasing her mental function laid the basis for her teaching method, which challenges students to directly address their handicaps. Arrowsmith-Young provides helpful anecdotes that indicate impressive improvements achieved by her students by following the mental exercises that she has developed. An inspiring, instructive life story.

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Read an Excerpt



Why are educators still telling parents that learning disabilities are lifelong? Given the great weight of evidence for neuroplasticity, why are cognitive exercises not more widely recognized as a treatment for learning disabilities?

We now take it as a given that the brain is inherently plastic, capable of change and constantly changing. The human brain can remap itself, grow new neural connections, and even grow new neurons over the course of a lifetime.

When I went to university in the 1970s, I was taught that the brain was fixed: what you were born with is what you lived with all your life. This belief that a learning problem is a lifelong disability had major implications for education and learning. Education was about pouring content into a fixed system—the brain. At one point, it was argued that there were critical periods in childhood when the brain could more efficiently learn; once this window closed, such learning became more difficult. At best, then, the brain was seen as a fixed system with brief periods of malleability.

I remember attending a lecture in the late 1980s and being told that children with learning disabilities could be likened to different animals with various strengths. The eagle could soar and see the world from on high, the squirrel could run fast and climb trees, and the duck could gracefully swim in the lake. We were then admonished: never make the duck try to climb or the eagle to swim or the squirrel to fly. Find each child’s unique gifts, we were told, and work on developing them because children could deploy them to compensate for things they could not do.

My own education had been grounded in this approach. And I knew from my own experience that the enormous expenditure of energy made in attempting to work around problems generated limited results.

Norman Doidge, the author of The Brain That Changes Itself, argues that centuries of viewing the brain as a machine, rather than an organ capable of regenerating itself, gave rise to what he calls neurological fatalism: the belief that to be born with a learning disorder was to live with it until death.

Presuppositions in any field (mine happens to be school psychology) determine how we carry out our investigations and what we believe is possible. Those presuppositions shape our view of reality and can become entrenched as truth, rarely to be questioned.

This, too, is neuroplasticity at work: we all create a map of how the brain works—a map based on our knowledge and training. Many people have not yet formed or understood the new map of the neuroplastic brain, especially in relation to education.

Doidge describes what he calls “the plastic paradox.” The property of plasticity can give rise to both flexible and rigid behaviors. Because trained neurons fire faster and clearer signals than untrained neurons, when we learn something and repeat it, we form circuits that tend to outcompete other circuits. Soon there is a tendency to follow the path most traveled. If your occupation is offering remedial programs, this means: “We’ve always done it this way; let’s continue doing it this way.” Once a way of thinking and practicing within a framework becomes habitual, it becomes ingrained, and a significant amount of energy is required to reshape old thought patterns and institute new practices.

Although we now know that age, training, and experience make for a constantly changing brain, many educators have yet to learn how to deploy the principles underlying neuroplasticity (that is, to treat learning disabilities). Even educators who recognize that the brain is changeable are still engaged in professional practices based on the old brain-is-fixed paradigm. Certainly it takes time, effort, and learning to integrate new knowledge into common practice; meanwhile, most treatments for children with learning disabilities remain based on those old notions of hardwired brains and lifelong disabilities.

Thomas Kuhn, in his classic work published fifty years ago, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, explains how the process of discovery works in science and what happens when there is a paradigm shift. Every field of science has foundational beliefs that people within that field learn as part of what Kuhn calls “educational initiation that prepares and licenses the student for professional practice.” These beliefs and assumptions determine what is to be studied and researched within that scientific discipline. Research within the paradigm is designed to gather knowledge within the framework of the paradigm. In the process of research, as Kuhn describes it, anomalies emerge that cannot be explained by the paradigm’s assumptions. At first, these anomalies are ignored or resisted. Over time, it’s recognized that they violate the paradigm and need to be investigated. Finally, the old paradigm begins to shift, and the one that emerges encompasses the anomalies. Kuhn argued that a paradigm change is in essence a scientific revolution, and that the new scientific theory demands rejection of the older one. In this way, science develops. Neuroplasticity is one such new paradigm.

What we urgently need now is a new paradigm in education—one that crosses the great divide between neuroscience and education. This new model will wholeheartedly embrace the life-altering concept of the changeable brain and use the principles of neuroplasticity. The end result will be a fundamental change in the learner’s capacity to learn.

Harvard University has developed the Mind, Brain, and Education Institute, devoted to bridging the gap between neuroscience and education. Its goal is to connect the disciplines; bring together educators and researchers to explore the latest research in cognitive science, neuroscience, and education; and apply this knowledge to educational practice. To help advance this goal, the institute also publishes a journal, Mind, Brain, and Education.

In an article published in fall 2010, “Linking Mind, Brain and Education to Clinical Practice: A Proposal for Transdisciplinary Collaboration,” authors Katie Ronstadt and Paul Yellin note: “Increasingly, neuroscientists are identifying the neural processes associated with brain development, the acquisition of academic skills, and disorders of learning. Integrating this emerging knowledge into education has been difficult because it requires collaboration across disciplines.” Part of the challenge, they note, is that neuroscientists and educators have different languages, frameworks, and priorities.

I started Arrowsmith School in Toronto in 1980. It evolved from my experience using the principles of neuroplasticity to address my own learning problems. I had become increasingly aware that traditional methods of dealing with learning-disabled students had only limited success. The Arrowsmith Program was developed from research in neuroscience, not education. The fundamental premise of my work is that by changing the brain, the learner’s capacity to learn can be modified.

The principle of neuroplasticity is considered part of the field of neuroscience and has not traditionally been taught in teachers’ colleges or studied widely in the educational system. Teachers who become administrators are taught that their job is to teach content. Thinking about rewiring the brain (so that the student becomes more capable of learning content) marks a radical departure from their traditional job description.

When I started this work more than thirty years ago, neuroplasticity was being discussed and researched in laboratories, but it was neither widely known nor well accepted. Only since 1990, partly encouraged by President George H.W. Bush’s proclaiming the 1990s the Decade of the Brain, has neuroplasticity been investigated extensively. I vividly remember standing on Yonge Street in Toronto outside my school in May 1999 as I excitedly told a colleague about an article I had just read: “New Nerve Cells for the Adult Brain,” by Gerd Kempermann and Fred H. Gage in Scientific American. This marked the first time I became aware of not just neuroplasticity but neurogenesis—how the adult brain can actually grow new neurons in the hippocampus, an area of the brain important for memory and learning. The brain was more plastic, more malleable, than originally thought.

Only as recently as 2000 did Eric Kandel of Columbia University win the Nobel Prize for his work demonstrating that learning in response to environmental demands changes the brain. Here was more proof of neuroplasticity. After Kandel won the Nobel Prize, it took several more years for the concept to reach the mainstream through media attention. Only in the past few years has the idea become broadly accepted in theory. In terms of the history of science and the acceptance of ideas, this is a fleeting moment.

Santiago Ramón y Cajal (1852–1934), considered one of the great pioneers in neuroscience, theorized the concept of neuroplasticity long before we had the refined technology and techniques to demonstrate it. He hypothesized, but could not prove, that the brain can be remapped, its very structure and organization changed, by the right stimulation. “Consider the possibility,” he once said, “that any man could, if he were so inclined, be the sculptor of his own brain, and that even the least gifted may, like the poorest land that has been well cultivated and fertilized, produce an abundant harvest.” This Spanish neuroscientist and histologist (one who studies the microscopic structure of tissue) won the Nobel Prize in 1906. Almost a century later, Kandel’s work confirmed Cajal’s hypothesis that the brain is plastic and changes occur at the synaptic connections between neurons.

The terms neuroplasticity and brain plasticity might feel new, but that’s because it is only recently that these terms have gained currency. In fact, these terms have been around a long time, and research in neuroplasticity—though mostly on the margins, it must be said—has been under way for more than two hundred years.

In 1783, an Italian anatomist named Michele Vincenzo Malacarne studied the impact of exercise on the brain. He took pairs of birds from the same nest and subjected one pair to intense training, the other pair to none. He then conducted the same experiments with dogs: one pair got the enrichment of intense training, and the other pair got no stimulation. When the animals were euthanized, Malacarne found that the brains of stimulated animals were larger than those of their counterparts, and especially in the cerebellum—the part of the brain that governs motor control and coordination. And 165 years later, Jerzy Konorski, a Polish neurophysiologist, used the terms brain plasticity and neural plasticity in a book he wrote in 1948: Conditioned Reflexes and Neuron Organization.

Today neuroplasticity is generating a lot of excitement in areas of rehabilitative medicine, where good news is rare. Norman Doidge chronicles in one of his documentaries some of the promising research being conducted. Jeffrey Schwartz, an associate professor at the UCLA School of Medicine in California, for example, is using what he calls “self-directed neuroplasticity” in treating obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). The classic example of OCD is the person who can neither stop thinking about germs nor stop washing his hands to kill germs. Schwartz is deploying the principles of neuroplasticity to forge new pathways in his patients’ brains. His patients are learning firsthand that the brain can change its structure in such a way that the impulses can be recognized as just that—mere impulses. The physiological changes that accompany this mental shift are visible on their brain scans.

Alain Brunet, an associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry at McGill University in Montreal, is using the malleability of the human brain to treat people suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder. These are victims, for example, of rape, child abuse, car accidents, and hostage takings for whom the event remains very much alive in their minds. Brunet is reporting success using a blend of pharmacology and neuroplasticity. These patients are first given medication to dampen the emotion associated with these memories and then asked to repeatedly recall the event. These men and women are rewiring their brains, disconnecting the circuitry linking the memory of the event to the arousal of their own threat systems. This process allows each person to file the memory in a new folder in the brain, not in the virtual present but in its rightful place—in the actual past. This is the principle of neuroplasticity in action: neurons that fire apart, wire apart. These new treatments for trauma usefully exploit this fact: when you remember a traumatic event, the network for that memory enters a more malleable state, and the treatment proceeds in that heightened neuroplastic milieu.

Finally, researchers in California are using cognitive exercises to help those with schizophrenia address some of the cognitive problems associated with their condition. Such people have difficulty perceiving, processing, and remembering information, and neuroscientists Sophia Vinogradov and Michael Merzenich are using specially designed computer programs to improve these cognitive functions. Brain imaging, their research shows, has demonstrated that these cognitive exercises change regions of the prefrontal cortex—those involved in regulating attention and problem solving—of a person with schizophrenia so it begins to look more like a normal brain.

In addition, a protein in the brain called BDNF (brain-derived neuro-tropic factor, also known as the “brain’s fertilizer”) is typically low in the brains of those with schizophrenia. Critical for neuronal survival, BDNF is also believed to play a vital role in what neurologists call activity-dependent plasticity (a term used to describe the brain’s ability to change as the result of specific sustained stimulation). These exercises increase BDNF levels to normal—further evidence of neuroplastic change.

“We know the brain is like a muscle,” says Vinogradov. “If you train it in the right way, you can increase its capacity. The brain is ever changing in relation to what’s happening to it. With the correct training, we can improve cognitive processes that weren’t strong to begin with by improving the processing pathways.” Says her colleague, Dr. Merzenich, “The brain changes—physically, chemically, functionally.”

“It’s unrealistic,” Norman Doidge told me recently, “to expect that the definitive demonstrations of neuroplasticity in the laboratory will suddenly undo the doctrine of the unchanging brain that so many were taught. Intellectual revolutions require time to spread. In the meantime, those few who have understood that neuroplasticity has immediate applications face incredulity or even opposition. That is what happens when you are at the cutting edge. It’s lonely out there. But a lot of the opposition to the idea will pass generationally because in the last few years, all the major neuroscience texts have chapters on neuroplasticity. I’m not worried about its clinical acceptance in the long term.”


Meet the Author

Barbara Arrowsmith-Young is the director of the Arrowsmith School and Arrowsmith Program. She holds a BA Sc. in child studies from the University of Guelph and a master’s degree in school psychology from the University of Toronto (Ontario Institute for Studies in Education).

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