In West Russia in 1943, a 23-year-old lieutenant was shot in the head by German invaders. He was sent into a coma but survived the injury. When he woke, he couldn’t understand that an elephant is larger than a fly. A ‘mental fog’ had descended on him – he could perceive objects but could no longer extract meaning from what he was seeing. When a 25-year-old Barbara Arrowsmith-Young read excerpts of his diary in 1977, she was shocked to realise that she suffered from the same cognitive dysfunction, minus the bullet. Severe learning disabilities had plagued her schooling and university life. But when Barbara happened across the writings of the groundbreaking neurologist who studied the wounded lieutenant, she decided to try to teach herself to tell the time – something her brain defects hadn’t allowed her to learn – and trained for hours each day. As she set herself new challenges, her brain began to change, and the fog lifted. Barbara is now the founder of the Arrowsmith Program, which revolutionises the brains of children with brain defects. We quizzed her about her work and why the belief that our brains are immovable structures should be rejected.
What is the most commonly held misconception about brains?
The idea that we only use 10% of our brain. There is no part of our brain that is superfluous or unnecessary – just speak to someone who has a learning problem or has experienced traumatic brain injury – we require and use all regions of our brain.
How did the learning difficulties that you had when you were younger affect you socially?
I struggled to interpret meaning in language so had difficulty understanding what people were saying unless it was concrete. For example, if someone said, ‘It is raining outside” I could comprehend that statement as I could conjure a visual image of its meaning. If the conversation had any abstract content, I struggled to understand. Something as simple as, “Do you want to go to the store before or after lunch?” left me befuddled.
Rules of a game were difficult to fathom. I couldn’t grasp cause and effect in language so had difficulty understanding why things happened leading to difficulties in interpreting the reasons behind people’s actions and reactions. I could not understand logical inconsistencies in people’s behaviour so was vulnerable to con artists.
I was viewed as rigid and stubborn because it was so hard for me to understand my world that any meaning I did eke out, I held onto for dear life. I could handle, barely, one friendship at a time as I could not process information from multiple sources. I was socially isolated and lonely.
Are education systems pitted against children whose brains function outside what is considered normal?
I have experienced education systems in many countries and in all cases, these educators are committed to the goal of helping children learn utilizing the best knowledge they currently have.
I strongly believe the challenge is to translate research coming out of neuroscience in a meaningful way to inform educational practice and I am optimistic that this is beginning to happen.
In October 2016, the first Canadian interdisciplinary education and neuroscience initiative was launched at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada – the Arrowsmith-Young Collaborative for Neuroscience and Education. Initiatives such as this will, I believe, change the face of education. Our brain mediates our learning, so the more we can learn about this process, the better we can educate our children.
You’ve surely seen the lives of many people change drastically as a result of your work and the Arrowsmith Program, but is there a particular student or moment you could tell us about that you consider particularly ground-breaking?
I think of Zachary who I describe in the chapter ‘Lost in Translation’, whose learning difficulties were very severe. Instead of asking about the ‘why’ of things, all he could ask was ‘what, what, what’ as his world was so confusing that he did not understand what was happening around him.
By age 6 he was labelled as a behaviour problem. He was bullied, had no friends, did not know how to play, could not handle sensory stimulation and his teachers were at a loss as how to help him – in fact his parents were counselled to find an alternative school for him. In grade one he began his journey at Arrowsmith School and over three years as the cognitive load of his severe learning disabilities were addressed, I watched a highly intelligent individual blossom.
In grade four he returned to a rigorous dual language curriculum school and now in grade seven he is one of the top students in his class, has developed a sense of humour, reads avidly, buys and sells stocks and is fully engaged in the world – no more confusion – the fog has lifted.
To me, the power of this work is that it is not teaching a skill or curriculum, it is changing the fundamental capacity of the learner to learn – which then can be applied to learning skills or curriculum throughout one’s life. As one parent said to me, “school is just a metaphor for life”- if these problems are not addressed, the individual carries them throughout life.
Most of the stories in The Woman Who Changed Her Brain are about people who have brain defects. But is the concept of neuroplasticity also relevant to people who don’t have any sort of brain or learning disabilities?
Neuroplasticity is relevant to anyone who has a brain. There are basic principles that can be applied to foster positive brain health in our daily lives – meditation, consciously practicing gratitude, aerobic exercise, as Rick Hanson says –‘velcro the positive’ – reframe our thinking to focus on what is positive, sufficient sleep, reducing negative stress and good nutrition.
The other factors to consider are active-sustained engagement and effortful processing. The former means you need to actively set your mind to a task/activity for a sustained period of time and the latter means you need to calibrate the level of difficulty of the task/activity to be just slightly beyond what you are currently capable of doing easily so it requires some effort. As the task/activity you have chosen becomes easy over time with practice, then add complexity to make it a further work out for your brain, and repeat…
Is there an exercise that readers could complete right now to help demonstrate how our brains can be trained or transformed?
Applying the principles of active sustained engagement and effortful processing to one’s activities will lead to a work out for the brain – so pick an activity that appeals – learning a language, learning a new dance, doing puzzles, learning a sport, etc. – and add these principles to help drive positive neuroplastic change.
Are you a big reader? If so, which books or authors have impressed you lately?
I am a passionate reader of books and can’t imagine my life without the rich worlds I can explore while immersing myself in a good book. I am currently reading ‘The Telomere Effect’ by Elizabeth Blackburn and Elissa Epel.