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.
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.
And then, if that wasn’t enough, I had a spatial problem. I couldn’t imagine three-dimensional space. I couldn’t create maps in my head. I would constantly get lost, even in my friend’s house.
Crossing the street instilled terror. I could not judge how far away was that car. Geometry was a nightmare. I felt incredible shame. I felt there was something horribly, horribly wrong with me.
And in my child’s mind, when I’d heard that diagnosis, of having a mental block, I actually thought I had a wooden cube in my head that made learning difficult. And I didn’t have a piece of wood in my head, but I wasn’t far wrong. I had blockages, as I was later to learn, in very critical parts of my brain.
And I tried all the traditional approaches, they were all about compensation, and about working around the problem, finding a strength to support a weakness. They were not about trying to address the source of the problem, and they took heroic effort, and led to rather limited results for me.
Then, Grade 8. I hit the wall. I could not imagine how I could go on to high school, and handle more complex curriculum. The only option I could see was ending my life. So, I decided to end the pain.
And the next morning, when I woke up after my failed suicide attempt, I berated myself for not even being able to get that right.
So, I soldiered on. And part of what kept me going was an attitude that I learned from my father. He was an inventor, and he was passionate about the creative process. And he taught me that if there’s a problem, and there’s no solution, you go out and create a solution.
And the other thing he taught me was that before you can solve a problem, you have to identify its nature. So I continued my hunt. I went on to study psychology, to try to understand what was wrong with me, what was the source of my problem.
And then, in the summer of 1977, something life-altering happened. I met a mind like my own, a Russian soldier, Lev Zasetsky, the only difference being his mind was shaped by a bullet, and mine had been that way since birth.
I met Zasestky on the pages of a book, The Man With a Shattered World, written by the brilliant Russian neuropsychologist, Alexander Luria.
As I read Zasetsky’s story, he couldn’t tell time, he described living in a dense fog. All he got was fragments, bits and pieces. This man was living my life. So now, at the age of 25, in 1977, I knew the source of my problem. It was a part of my brain, in the left hemisphere, that wasn’t working.
And then I came across the work of Mark Rosenzweig, and he showed me a solution. Rosenzweig was working with rats, and he found that rats in an enriched and stimulating environment were better learners. And then he went and looked at their brains: their brains had changed physiologically to support that learning.
And this was neuroplasticity in action. Neuroplasticity, simply put, the brain’s ability to change physiologically and functionally, as a result of stimulation. So now I knew what I had to do. I had to find a way to work, to exercise my brain, to strengthen those weak parts.
And this was the beginning of my transformation and of my life’s work. And I had to believe that humans must have at least as much neuroplasticity, and hopefully more, than rats.
So, I went on to create my first exercise. And I used clocks, because clocks are form of relationship, and I had never been able to tell time. So I started with a two-handed clock, to force my brain to process relationships, and then I added a third hand, and then a fourth hand, because I wanted to make my brain to work harder, and harder, and harder, to pull together concepts and understand their connection.