The Brain That Changes Itself: Chapter 2-Building Herself A Better Brain – A Woman Labeled ‘Retarded’ Discovers How to Heal Herself

In this chapter,  Dr. Norman Doidge introduces us to a very interesting individual – an important piece in the quest to use neuroplasticity to help people.

Barbara Arrowsmith Young, a rare individual, had a defect and though of a way to fix the problem. “Asymmetry” describes Barbara because there are areas of superior function -auditory and visual memory, having a driven determination due to a well-developed frontal cortex.

On the other hand, there were areas of very low functioning. Barbara’s mother joke, “The obstetrician must have yanked you out by your right leg,’ which was longer than her left, causing her pelvis to shift. Her right arm never straightened, her right side was larger than her left, her left eye less alert. Her spine was asymmetrical and twisted with scoliosis.” P. 27, 28

Learning difficulties included:

  1. She had difficulty pronouncing words due to damage in Broca’s Area of the brain.
  2. Her spatial reasoning was impaired. Our brain constructs an imaginary pathway before we execute movements. This is required for crawling which, in turn, promotes development.
  3. Spatial reasoning allows us to make a mental map, which allows us to organize our space. She was always getting lost outside as well.
  4. Kinesthetic perception, which allows us to be aware of where our body or limbs are in space, was also impaired. She was very clumsy.
  5. Her visual disability kept her from seeing more than a few letters at a time – her field of vision was very narrow.
  6. Relationships were difficult for her. Grammar, math concepts, logic and cause / effect were affected.
  7. Reversals (b, d, q, p, saw, was) and mirror writing contributed to a dyslexic diagnosis.
  8. Since she did not understand real time, she had to go over and over things to understand things from the past.

In those days (the 50s), there were no special education teachers. “You were either bright, average, slow, or mentally retarded. If you were mentally retarded, you were in the ‘opportunity classes.’ However, there were no opportunities for challenging a mind that had excellent visual and auditory memory. Her mother, Mary said, “You will succeed; there is no doubt  and if you have a problem, fix it.” p. 31 In college and graduate school she studied child development, hoping to sort herself out.  A fellow graduate student who also was learning disabled, Joshua Cohen ran a small clinic for struggling students. She did her research on the compensation skills used in the clinic. Her study showed that they did not work. Cohen suggested she look at the work of Aleksandr Luria (Basic Problems of Neurolinguistics, A Man With A Shattered World ) Reading about Luria’s patien, Barbara saw herself in his life  What Luria failed to give Barbara was a treatment.  She understood herself and her disability, but she became depressed for want of a treatment.

Then she read about research by Mark Rosenzweig of UC of Berkeley did on rats. In a stimulating environment, rats had more neurotransmitters. This became one of the first to demonstrate neuroplasticity.  P. 35

Realizing that the brain could be modified, Barbara began developing exercises that would modify her brain and increase her function. First, she had Joshua Cohen right the correct time on the back of cards with clock faces. She spend hours over weeks reviewing these and using real clocks to understand that 2:45 was 45 minutes after 2:00 and 15 minutes to 3:00.

Barbara and Joshua married and opened the Arrowsmith School in Toronto. They developed a number of activities that modified brains and provided improvement in function. Applicants of the school go through 40 hours of assessment to determine precisely where the brain functions are weak. Students who were easily distracted can  now focus. Some children patch the left eye to force visual input to the correct part of the brain.

Issues Addressed by the Arrowsmith School:

  • Speech – our brains the sequence of symbols of speech(words and letters) into a sequence of movements (lips and mouth).Barbara and Luria believe this to be the managed by the left premotor cortex. P. 38 Difficulties here disrupt fluent speech.
  • Written language – our brain converts symbols (words and letters) into movements of the fingers and hands.  Difficulties here disrupt fluency in writing. Printing is easier because you write one stroke / letter at a time. With cursive we ‘run the letters together.’ P. 38-39
  • Reading is also difficult for these individuals with damage in the premotor cortex. Reading can be slow and the reader will skip words.

One boy with all three of these problems.  One of his brain exercises was to tracing complex lines to stimulate his neurons in the weakened premotor area – helping in speech, writing and reading. P. 39 By the time he graduated, he was reading above grade level and speaking longer, fuller sentences as well as his writing was improving.

For low auditory processing – difficulty following directions, spacing out when overloaded – some students listens to CDs and memorize poems and other exercises in rote memory.

“The Arrowsmith approach, and the use of brain exercises generally, has major implications for education. … When ‘weak links in the chain’ are strengthened, people gain access to skills whose development was formerly blocked, and they feel enormously liberated.” P. 41

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Is Modern Technology Bad for Learning? Tips for the User of Modern Technology

Recently I went to my beauty salon  to get my hair cut. They were running a special – “Hair Cuts for $7.00 after 7:00 pm on Tuesday evenings.”  There were more people than usual in the waiting area because of the special as many of us are looking for ways to save money. Most of us who were waiting were visually occupying ourselves while we waited.  There were five to six people using hand-held electronic devices – phones, iPads etc. Two people were reading magazines and two of us were reading books. I do not know specifically what the owners of the electronic devices were doing – there are many ways to use these devices including talking, texting, listening to music, playing games, surfing the web and reading.  It appeared that most of the users were visually occupied.
Since we see such great technological advancement in our day, we may think that we have increased in our intelligence. Sadly, our education system seems to be floundering. Some would have us think that our forefathers were widely illiterate.  To discover the literacy of our forefathers we could calculate the “readability” of their documents.  Educators determine the readability or grade level of a text by using a graph counting the number of sentences and syllables in a 100-word passage. Our forefathers used long words and long sentences placing the readability far above the majority of students and adults today.  For example, I looked up The Federalist Papers online and chose a 100-word passage from each of the three authors (Alexander Hamilton # 1, James Madison #38 and John Jay #64). Each were at least college level using Fry’s Readability Graph. Keep in mind that these papers were intended to be read and understood by everyone throughout the Colonies, not just intellectuals.
Due to the relative lack of close visual stimuli, these individuals allowed their eyes to develop normally.  They were outside much of the time, allowing their visual system to mature. Also, they had well-developed auditory systems. This can also be understood by reading the documents. Listening to each other speak in this way helped as well.

Our lives are so much different now.   However, we do not have to return to an agrarian society to restore much of what has been lost.  Here are some tips for the user of modern technology:
1. Take breaks often – at least looking up and outside.
2. When possible take longer breaks, taking walks outside.
3. Get sunshine and breathe deeply.
4. Use appropriate sized reading material for young eyes.
5. Limit screen time (TV, Computer, and hand-held electronic devices) for young children whose auditory and visual systems are still maturing.
6. Use meal times to discuss current events or other issues as a family.
7. Read together as a family.
8. Encourage and model reading for your children.

The Brain That Changes Itself – Chapter 1 – A Woman Perpetually Falling…

The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge, M.D.
Chapter 1: A Woman Perpetually Falling…Rescued by the Man Who Discovered the Plasticity of Our Senses

Doidge begins by telling of a lady (Cheryl Schiltz) who five years earlier (1997) suffered from a postoperative infection that was treated with the antibiotic, “gentamicin”. One of its side effects is loss of vestibular function. The doctor said that it would be permanent. Cheryl felt like she was continually falling.

We keep our balance due to the delicate vestibular system, which consists of three semicircular canals in the inner ear. One maintains balance with movement vertically, one horizontally and finally one forward and backward. There are tiny hairs in a fluid inside the canals. As we move these hairs move within the fluid. The brain interprets the information and as we move, we still see straight.  Some think of this vestibular apparatus as one of our senses.

Paul Bach y Rita and his neuroplasticity team had developed a device that, they hoped, would allow her vestibular system to be restored. After some very short trials, she used the device for 20 minutes. In addition to those 20 minutes, she experienced 3 hours and 20 minutes of residual effect. That was an amazing result for Cheryl and the research team, however, experiencing lack of balance again was very hard for her.  Over the next year, she used the device increasingly longer and now does not consider herself a “Wobbler” any longer.

Earlier, in 1969, Bach y Rita wrote an article for Nature, Europe’s premier science journal. On this occasion, he and his team had developed a device (tactile-vision) that allowed congenitally blind individuals to read, make out faces and shadow, and distinguish whether objects were closer or farther away. There were six subjects who were able to experience sight to some degree. While this device is long forgotten, it was one of the first demonstrations of using one sense to replace another.

This and other demonstrations would challenge the idea of earlier scientists that the brain was a machine. Also, challenged was the idea of localization — that is specific brain function was localized in one area only. Rejecting this idea, Bach y Rita set out to prove the mainstream idea as wrong.
Paul Bach y Rita has studied, researched and worked in a number of fields, following his quest wherever it took him. He says, “We see with our brains, not with our eyes. … our eyes merely sense changes in light energy, it is our brains that perceive and hence see.” P. 15      Because a blind man’s cane can help him “see”, Bach y Rita, believed that skin and touch receptors can substitute for a retina.

While in Germany in the early 1960s Bach y Rita began to doubt the concept of localization.  His research demonstrated that the idea of ‘one function, one location’ was flawed. P.  His tactile-vision machine further demonstrates that the brain, not a machine is the “miracle.”  Indeed, we can say with King David in Psalm 139, “…we are fearfully and wonderfully made.”

In 1959, Paul’s brother George had been told that their father had suffered a severe stroke and would not regain mobility and speech. After trying rehabilitation programs, he set out to rehabilitate his father. Since he couldn’t walk, he decided he would begin where babies begin – crawling. He first taught his father to crawl.  After a year of hard work, Pedro Bach y Rita was able to return to teaching at a University in New York. Thus, Paul understood that the brain could relearn.

By 2002, 33 years after Bach y Rita had written about his tactile-vision machine, scientists are using a smaller, modern version train the brain.  With modern technology they can indeed see that the tactile images are being processed in their brain’s visual cortex.  A modern neuroscientist, Mriganka, has surgically rewired the brain of a young ferret – using hearing and vision. P. 25  It is fascinating to read of the research that is being done… the discovery is that “...we are fearfully and wonderfully made.”

To Label or Not to Label: Pros and Cons for Seeking Educational Diagnoses

To Label:

1. Diagnostic testing may reveal learning gaps
2. Getting a diagnosis / label may qualify an individual for help in school and tutoring services at some colleges.
3. Having a label may make it easier to explain atypical behavior or achievement.

Not to Label:

1. While diagnostic testing may lead to learning gaps   (i.e. a person can’t add two digits to two digits, this person does not understand cause and effect in reading), it often limits expectations to what a person with that label typically can do.
2. Before getting a label one should find out what kind of services will be offered and how it will impact the learning of the individual. In school settings, the emphasis is usually to accommodate so the individual can fit in with the mainstream.
3. Often having a diagnosis provides little in the way of resolving the issues. Recommendations are often very limited.

While a diagnosis that affects learning often has a health component as a part of the underlying cause, we should be sure that in treating that health issue, we search its underlying cause or causes. As an example, one should remember that ADHD is not a deficiency of a drug such as Ritalin. Those types of drugs do not get to the underlying cause of the typical behaviors of ADHD. They may control symptoms, but do not resolve the underlying causes.
Before making a decision, explore alternatives that are capable of providing resolution to the underlying causes to the difficulties rather than merely provide accommodations.  Since the 1930s there has been an alternative to the mainstream, the neurodevelopmental approach. This approach uses a developmental profile, looking for missing pieces in development. These gaps indicate to the neurodevelopmentalist that specific brain stimulation is required to encourage development. When that occurs, the reason why a label may have been assigned disappears.
The Institutes for the Achievement of Human Potential (Dr. Temple Faye, Glenn Doman, Dr. Robert Doman and Carl Delacato, PhD), are considered the founders of this approach. There are a number of organizations that have developed from the ideas and experience of the Institutes.  Generally parents are instructed in how to do short, frequent activities to stimulate the needed areas in the brain. Occasionally, you will find organizations with programs that will provide these services to the parents.  Other organizations may offer a combination in center and at home activities. Families should determine which of these options best fit their needs and circumstances.

All of these programs fully embrace the concept of neuroplasticity that has been accepted in more recent years in the mainstream. Neuroplasticity recognizes that the brain is much more flexible in its learning capacity through out life than previously thought.  Key to success of these programs is determining the underlying cause and stimulating the brain in a specific way consistently