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.
And about three to four months in, I knew something significant had changed. I’d always wanted to read philosophy, and had never been able to understand it. And I just happened to have access to a philosophy library. So I went in, and I pulled a book off the shelf, and I opened it to a page at random, and I read that page, and I understood it as I was reading it. This had never happened in my entire life.
And then I thought, maybe it’s a fluke, maybe that was just an easy book. So I pulled another book off the shelf, opened it, read it, and understood it. And by the time I was finished, I was surrounded by a pile of a hundred books, and I had been able to read and understand each page. So I knew that something had changed.
Thank you. My experiment had worked. The human brain was capable of change.
And then I decided to create an exercise for that alien part of my body, and for that I knew I had to work on an area in the right hemisphere, the somatosensory cortex that registers sensation. I created an exercise for that and I am no longer a danger to myself.
And then I decided, that spatial problem, because I was really tired of getting lost, and so I created another exercise for that, and I don’t get lost, I can actually read maps — I don’t like GPSs, because I like to read maps now, because I can.
So, I knew now, the brain could change. I was living proof of human neuroplasticity.
And what really breaks my heart is that I still meet people today, children, individuals, that are struggling with learning problems, and they’re still being told what I was told in 1957, that they need to learn to live with their limitations, they don’t dare to dream.
And what I learned since 1977, when I met Zasetsky and Luria, and Rosenzweig, is that, yes, our brain does shape us, it impacts how we can engage, and participate, and be in the world, and every single one of us has our own unique profile of cognitive strengths and weaknesses. And if there’s a limitation, we don’t necessarily have to live with it.
We now know about neuroplasticity, and we can harness the brain’s changeable characteristics, to create programs to actually strengthen and stimulate and change our brain.
And in 1966, Rosenzweig threw down the gauntlet. He said, his challenge was: “Let’s take what he’d learned with rats, and apply it to human learning.” And we need to embrace that challenge, we need to also challenge current practices that are still operating out of that paradigm of the unchangeable brain. We need to work together to take what we know now about neuroplasticity, and develop programs that actually shape our brains, to change the future of learning.