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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