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The Woman Who Changed Her Brain (and Thousands of Others)

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Synchronicity is sometimes defined as a "meaningful coincidence" so when my flight from Boston's Logan airport was delayed by eight hours, it "just so happened" that I was carrying a book that would turn out to have a life-changing impact: The Woman Who Changed Her Brain and Other Inspiring Stories of Pioneering Brain Transformation (Free Press/Simon & Schuster) by Barbara Arrowsmith-Young.

If you or anyone you know has a learning disability, you will be riveted by the author's journey. As a child growing up in Toronto in the 1950's, Barbara Arrowsmith-Young suffered from multiple cognitive defects. She read and wrote words backwards, and was unable to tell time. A kinesthetic deficit affected how she perceived the left side of her body, so that she was constantly bruised but felt no pain. In fact, the author was so accident-prone that her mother believed it would be a miracle if her daughter survived past the age of five.

The 1950's was a tough period for any child who had difficulty learning. The term "learning disability" was not coined by educator Samuel Kirk until 1960. It was not until the 1970's that the term reached public awareness. If you were dyslexic or had a quantitative deficit that limited your ability to process numbers, you were labeled "stupid" and your mother was probably told that you were not "applying yourself." Ms. Arrowsmith-Young got the strap in first grade because her teacher believed that her learning problems stemmed from willfulness. She says, "I wanted to do it right but no matter how many times I tried to do it normally, the numbers and letters were reversed. I would have meltdowns in grade one and cry uncontrollably."

When the author's mother was told that her daughter had a mental block in her head, Ms. Arrowsmith-Young thought that she literally had a wooden block in her head! When someone said it was raining outside, she could create a picture or diagram but she could not understand the sentence from a linguistic point of view. She was unable to grasp an idea like "the house is larger than the dog" or "my uncle is my father's brother." She says, "I would have trouble drawing that. It was like a life sentence." Not only did she struggle academically. Ms. Arrowsmith-Young became socially isolated because she could not understand conversations among people. "I learned how to smile and be very quiet because I didn't want people to know that I couldn't understand," she says. When it came to sports, she was always the last one picked for a team because she was unable to tell how far her body was to a moving object. This compounded her sense of failure.

Lacking the ability to understand, the author developed strategies to compensate for her deficits. "I had a close to verbatim auditory memory and photographic visual memory so I memorized everything and hope I had made the right match," she says. Her success rate varied from 80 percent to 10 percent; however, her teachers assumed that if she could score 80 percent one time, she must have been lacking will or not making an effort the rest of the time. Her mother, a former home economics and nutrition teacher devised flash cards with numbers and letters. Determined to learn, Ms. Arrowsmith-Young says that she "became a workaholic in first grade ... eventually I mastered reading and numbers."

The prospect of entering high school became overwhelming. Not only would this academically-challenged student have to navigate traveling between classrooms, she would be dealing with more complex subjects and teachers with multiple teaching styles. "I felt I had hit a wall and couldn't get past it," she says. One night she slashed both wrists with a razor blade, thinking that she would go to sleep and not wake up the next morning. She says, "But I had not cut deeply enough and berated myself. I was a complete and total failure." Barbara Arrowsmith-Young was all of 14 years old.

The pain of living with multiple cognitive and kinesthetic defects intensified as she forced herself through Toronto's educational system. In 1977, she contemplated suicide again. "This time I was going to get it right. I knew where to stand on the subway platform," she says. Fortunately, it was around this time that she discovered The Man with a Shattered World, Aleksander Luria's book about a soldier who had a bullet in the left side of his brain. Ms. Arrowsmith-Young realized, "This man is describing my life. All the things I couldn't do he couldn't do." Case in point: The soldier could not tell time. Nor could she.

Luria's seminal book led her to research neuroplasticity, the concept that the brain does grow and change with the right kind of stimulation. In one study, rats placed in an enriched environment had more complex brains than rats in standard or impoverished environments. Their brains had more neurotransmitters, glial cells, and blood vessels. They had more dendrites to enhance transmission. Wondering if it would be possible to create an activity or task to stimulate an area of the brain in humans, she designed her first cognitive exercise.

A friend would call out the time -- 2:44 or 5:15, for example -- and Ms. Arrowsmith-Young would draw it on the image of a blank watch face. As she became more skilled, she discovered an improvement in the part of her brain that processed relationships. She says, "The first thing I noticed that when I was watching 60 Minutes, I was able to interpret what I had seen. Prior to doing the clock face exercise, my friend had to explain each story to me!"

This "aha!" moment gave her confidence. "The power of his work is that it is changing the cognitive capacity to understand by stimulating that area of the brain so that it becomes stronger," she says. After the clock face, Ms. Arrowsmith-Young went on to create different exercises for specific cognitive deficits. This, in turn, led to her founding the Arrowsmith School in Toronto which has expanded to 35 programs in the United States and Canada. Two new Arrowsmith programs will soon be launched in Sydney and Melbourne, Australia.

To date, some 4,000 students have been helped. Ms. Arrowsmith-Young believes, "This should be a normal part of the curriculum in grade school. If every child entering grade one would be doing cognitive programs for part of the day, children would never have this emotional turmoil and stigma of being called learning disabled."

The Arrowsmith method does not only work for children. The author has worked with 70 individuals who are over 55 years of age and retired. One of her adult students, a physician who could never recognize faces, entered the program at the age of 74. Ms. Arrowsmith-Young says, "She made the same progress as someone who is 15."

The Arrowsmith program (www.arrowsmithschool.org) begins with a one-day assessment process that identifies 19 areas of the brain. Working with the student and/or his or her parents, an Arrowsmith teacher will help to set priorities and a program that will involve ten months of cognitive exercises for each deficit. During those ten months, students spend at least four hours a day working with an Arrowsmith teacher. It costs $2000 for the preliminary assessment and $3600 for the ten-month program which includes a post-assessment.

At first, her work was not well-received within the scientific community. "The whole concept of neuroplasticity did not exist. There was no context," she says. "But the paradigm has shifted. There is so much more awareness about neuroplasticity in the brain."