Barbara Arrowsmith-Young on The Woman Who Changed Her Brain (Full Transcript)

Barbara Arrowsmith Young at TEDxToronto

Full text of Barbara Arrowsmith-Young, the creator and director of Arrowsmith School, on The Woman Who Changed Her Brain at TEDxToronto conference.

Listen to the MP3 Audio here: MP3 – The Woman Who Changed Her Brain by Barbara Arrowsmith-Young at TEDxToronto


I want to share a little secret, which I hope will not be a secret by the end of the talk. I am truly, madly, deeply passionate about the human brain.

Science has taught us that our brain shapes us, that it makes us uniquely who we are. And if we think about our brain, it has 200 billion neurons. Think about the world’s population: that’s a mere 7 billion. And we have hundreds of trillions of connections in our brain. If we imagine all the stars in the Milky Way Galaxy, there are more connections in our brain, than all of those stars combined.

So, this incredibly complex organ that we carry with us everywhere we go, it does shape who we are. It is a filter, it filters our perceptions and our understanding of ourselves, of others, of our world, and of our place in that world.

And what is incredibly amazing is no two brains are exactly alike. If you look at the person next to you, and you note all the physical differences between you: the shape of your nose, the color of your eyes, your height, there are more differences between your two brains than all of those physical differences in combination. So, our brain does make us uniquely us.

And I am here today to share with you my story, and it’s a story of how I came to learn that not only does our brain shape us, but that we can actually shape our brain.

And my story began in Grade 1, and in Grade 1, I was identified as having a mental block. I was told I had a defect. And I was told I would never learn like other children. And really, the message at that time was loud and clear. I was told I needed to learn to live with those limitations.

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And this was 1957, and it was the time of the unchangeable brain. And childhood was a profound struggle for me. I couldn’t tell time. I couldn’t understand the relationship between an hour hand and a minute hand on a clock. I couldn’t understand language. Most of what I read, or heard, was really as intelligible as the ‘Jabberwocky’.

I could understand concrete things. If somebody said to me, “The man is wearing a black coat”, I could paint the picture in my head, and I could understand that. But what I couldn’t do was understand concepts, or ideas, or relationships.

So, lots of things were confusing. I pondered, how could my aunt also be my mother’s sister? And what did that fraction, 1/4, really mean? Any kind of abstract concept was hard for me.

Irony and jokes: that was impossible. So, I learned to laugh when other people did.

Cause and effect: it did not exist in my world. There were no reasons behind why things happened. My world was a series of disconnected bits and pieces of unrelated fragments. And eventually, my fragmented view of the world ended up causing a very fragmented sense of myself.

And that wasn’t all: this whole left side of my body was like an alien being, unconnected to the rest of me. I would bang and bump into things on the left side of my body. If I picked up anything in this left hand, I would drop it. If I put this left hand on a hot burner, I would feel pain, but I had no idea where it was coming from. I was truly a danger to myself.

My mother, she was convinced I would be dead by the age of 5.

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