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Why I Wrote The Woman Who Changed Her Brain

We have always thought that “our brain shapes us.” I wrote my new book, The Woman Who Changed Her Brain (May 2012; Free Press, Fore­word by Nor­man Doidge), to prove that the reverse is equal­ly true. I want­ed to demon­strate how “we can shape our brains.”

Imag­ine hav­ing a brain that is capa­ble and inca­pable at the same time. Grow­ing up, I had severe learn­ing dis­abil­i­ties. I lived in a world that was con­fus­ing and incom­pre­hen­si­ble. As I was to lat­er dis­cov­er, a crit­i­cal part of my brain was not work­ing prop­er­ly, the end result being that all lan­guage was expe­ri­enced as for­eign and my trans­la­tor was bro­ken. Find­ing con­nec­tions between things and ideas was a chal­lenge, and telling time, for instance, was impossible—I couldn’t grasp the rela­tion­ship between the big hand and the lit­tle hand on a clock. I could not under­stand cause and effect, so felt buf­fet­ed by ran­dom events, not being able to see the ‘why’ of things. And this was the 1950’s and 60’s when the brain was viewed as unchange­able, so I was told I had best learn to live with my lim­i­ta­tions. I walked around in a fog, rely­ing on my excel­lent mem­o­ry and my dri­ve and deter­mi­na­tion to find an answer to what plagued me.

As a young grad­u­ate stu­dent in psy­chol­o­gy, frus­trat­ed with the enor­mous expen­di­ture of ener­gy required to work around my prob­lems and with very lim­it­ed suc­cess, I came across the research of the great Russ­ian neu­ropsy­chol­o­gist Alexan­der Luria, who stud­ied sol­diers who had suf­fered head wounds. Using Luria’s detailed descrip­tions of the func­tions of var­i­ous brain regions, I iden­ti­fied 19 unique learn­ing dys­func­tions. And after read­ing the research of Mark Rosen­zweig who demon­strat­ed that stim­u­la­tion could improve the brains of rats, I the­o­rized that a per­son could trans­form weak areas of the brain through repet­i­tive and tar­get­ed cog­ni­tive exer­cis­es. With much read­ing and an intu­itive under­stand­ing of the brain’s func­tion­ing, I invent­ed a series of cog­ni­tive exer­cis­es to “fix” my own brain. This was in 1978, long before the con­cept of “neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty” was wide­ly under­stood. At the time, the sci­en­tif­ic com­mu­ni­ty believed this kind of trans­for­ma­tion was impos­si­ble, but the exer­cis­es did indeed, in my first-hand expe­ri­ence, rad­i­cal­ly improve the func­tion of the weak­ened areas of my brain. Today, this notion of brain plasticity—which I began explor­ing three decades ago—is becom­ing estab­lished wis­dom in neu­ro­science.

In the past five years, the idea that self-improve­ment can hap­pen in the brain has caught hold and inspired new hope. Assess­ment mea­sures and brain exer­cis­es are being devel­oped to iden­ti­fy and then strength­en weak cog­ni­tive capac­i­ties that under­lie spe­cif­ic learn­ing dis­abil­i­ties. From these devel­op­ments and with my vision for this pro­gram to be wide­ly avail­able to all strug­gling stu­dents, the Arrow­smith Pro­gram and School was born and, today, 35 schools both inde­pen­dent and pub­licly fund­ed through­out Cana­da and the U.S. have imple­ment­ed the pro­gram.

I wrote The Woman Who Changed Her Brain to com­bine my own per­son­al jour­ney with case his­to­ries from three decades as a researcher and edu­ca­tor, unrav­el­ing the mys­tery of how our brain medi­ates our func­tion­ing in the world. I am enthused by the brain’s incred­i­ble abil­i­ty to change and over­come learn­ing prob­lems and our grow­ing under­stand­ing of the work­ings of the brain and its pro­found impact on how we par­tic­i­pate in the world.

My work has been and con­tin­ues to be a labour of love and I am hon­ored to share now my jour­ney and life’s work. I sin­cere­ly hope many Sharp­Brains read­ers will enjoy my new book and con­tribute to chang­ing the way our soci­ety still thinks about the brain and mind.

–>To Learn More and Order BookThe Woman Who Changed Her Brain (May 2012; Free Press, Fore­word by Nor­man Doidge)

–> To Watch 3-minute clip: click Here

Bar­bara Arrow­smith-Young is the Direc­tor of Arrow­smith School and Arrow­smith Pro­gram where she con­tin­ues to devel­op pro­grams for stu­dents with learn­ing dis­abil­i­ties. It is her vision that this pro­gram be avail­able to all stu­dents strug­gling with learn­ing dis­abil­i­ties so they may know the ease and joy of learn­ing and to real­ize their dreams.

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