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Barbara Arrowsmith Young: Every kid should practice stress reduction and targeted cognitive exercises at school

Bar­bara Arrow­smith Young

What is your cur­rent job title and orga­ni­za­tion, and what excites you the most about work­ing there?
As dis­cussed in The Brain that Changes Itself and in my own book, The Woman Who Changed Her Brain, I launched the Arrow­smith Pro­gram, a suite of cog­ni­tive exercises–now in more that 60 schools–designed to strength­en weak cog­ni­tive areas that under­lie a num­ber of spe­cif­ic learn­ing dif­fi­cul­ties and dis­abil­i­ties.

I did so based on my jour­ney to over­come my own severe spe­cif­ic learn­ing dif­fi­cul­ties, and what excites me now is work­ing with a group of ded­i­cat­ed pro­fes­sion­als with a shared vision of improv­ing the lives of indi­vid­u­als strug­gling with learn­ing dif­fi­cul­ties. We want to help them become com­pe­tent, con­fi­dent inde­pen­dent life-long learn­ers who dare to dream and have the cog­ni­tive resources to real­ize those dreams.

Please tell us about your inter­est in brain health and per­for­mance. What areas are you most inter­ested in? What moti­vated you to pur­sue work in your field?
My moti­va­tion grew out of my per­son­al strug­gle with severe learn­ing dif­fi­cul­ties. I did not see a future for myself so I set out on a quest to first dis­cov­er the source of my prob­lems, and then to deter­mine a solu­tion. In 1977 I came across the work of A.R. Luria through his book, The Man with a Shat­tered World, which helped me under­stand the source of my prob­lems — spe­cif­ic parts of my brain were not func­tion­ing prop­er­ly. Through Luria’s clin­i­cal descrip­tions I came to iden­ti­fy the nature of the prob­lem. At the same time I was read­ing Mark Rosenzweig’s work demon­strat­ing the brain’s abil­i­ty to change phys­i­o­log­i­cal­ly and func­tion­al­ly as a result of envi­ron­men­tal stim­u­la­tion – neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty.

I took these two lines of research and com­bined them to cre­ate a series of cog­ni­tive exer­cis­es to stim­u­late my brain func­tion in three dis­tinct areas – rea­son­ing, kines­thet­ic per­cep­tion, and spa­tial aware­ness. As I expe­ri­enced the pos­i­tive out­comes of these exer­cis­es, I want­ed to help oth­ers strug­gling as I had and the Arrow­smith Pro­gram was born — and it has grown a lot since.

I am most inter­est­ed in explor­ing the ter­ri­to­ry of the human brain and in find­ing ways to apply what we learn to address even more areas that impact learn­ing.

What is one impor­tant thing you are work­ing on now, and where can peo­ple learn more about it?
Last year, Howard Eaton, Direc­tor of the Eaton Edu­ca­tion­al Group and author of Brain School, joined me in form­ing the Arrow­smith Pro­gram Research Team to work with researchers across North Amer­i­ca and in Aus­tralia to design stud­ies that ana­lyze the brain-based, aca­d­e­m­ic, cog­ni­tive, emo­tion­al and social out­comes that occur as stu­dents engage in our tar­get­ed cog­ni­tive exer­cis­es.

For exam­ple, both Dr. Lara Boyd at the Uni­ver­si­ty of British Colum­bia and Dr. Greg Rose at the Uni­ver­si­ty of South­ern Illi­nois have began con­duct­ing brain imag­ing on stu­dents with spe­cif­ic learn­ing dif­fi­cul­ties under­go­ing our pro­gram, and a team from Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­gary pre­sent­ed promis­ing results last month at the Amer­i­can Psy­cho­log­i­cal Con­ven­tion in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. Peo­ple can learn more here about these research ini­tia­tives.

What are 1–2 key things you’d like every per­son to under­stand about his/ her own brain and mind, that you think are com­mon­ly mis­un­der­stood?
The impor­tance of reduc­ing stress on brain health needs to be bet­ter appre­ci­at­ed. If peo­ple can do one thing a day to reduce stress –med­i­ta­tion, giv­ing grat­i­tude, walk­ing in nature, get­ting a good night’s sleep–this has sig­nif­i­cant pos­i­tive ben­e­fits on brain health and func­tion.

Also I would encour­age peo­ple to work on improv­ing their cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties through con­tin­ued prac­tice – it is pos­si­ble.

Where do you see clear “low-hang­ing fruit” to shape the future and the prac­tice of brain fit­ness?
We need to con­tin­ue to build aware­ness about the impor­tance of keep­ing our brains fit and healthy across our whole lifes­pan. And we also need to show, through events and pub­li­ca­tions such as those pro­duced by Sharp­Brains, how the best evi­dence can be applied in our dai­ly lives. I believe we need to start this as soon as chil­dren enter school so that we help them become good stew­ards of their own brain health. Every child should devote part of the day engag­ing in healthy brain prac­tices from stress reduc­tion to tar­get­ed cog­ni­tive exer­cis­es.

What would you like the 2014 Sharp­Brains Vir­tual Sum­mit to accom­plish?
I’d like this year’s Sum­mit to spark unex­pect­ed con­ver­sa­tions and ideas around how new tech­nolo­gies and pro­grams can be put to good use to help opti­mize the brain health and per­for­mance of large groups of peo­ple.

Final­ly, if I may…what do YOU do to stay sharp?
I walk briskly for 40 min­utes a day sev­er­al times a week, do breath­ing med­i­ta­tion, prac­tice grat­i­tude, try to focus on the pos­i­tive, and keep my mind stim­u­lat­ed by tack­ling new prob­lems and con­stant­ly chal­leng­ing my assump­tions.

2014_SharpBrains_Virtual_Summit_Shaping the Practice and the Future of Brain FitnessThis con­ver­sa­tion is part of a new inter­view series with Spon­sors & Speak­ers @ 2014 Sharp­Brains Vir­tual Sum­mit (Octo­ber 28–30th). You can reg­is­ter with a 10% dis­count using pro­mo­tional code: sharp2014. Please join us!

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Categories: Cognitive Neuroscience, Education & Lifelong Learning, Health & Wellness

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