Barbara Arrowsmith-Young, the creator and director of Arrowsmith School and Arrowsmith Program, on The Woman Who Changed Her Brain at TEDxToronto – Transcript
Barbara Arrowsmith-Young – Creator and Director of Arrowsmith School and Arrowsmith Program
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.
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.
My vision is of a world that we create, in which no child has to live with the ongoing struggle and pain of a learning disability. My vision is that cognitive exercises become just a normal part of curriculum. My vision is that school becomes a place that we go to strengthen our brain, to become really efficient and effective learners, engaged in the learning process, where not only, as learners, can we dare to dream, but we can realize our dream. And to me, this is the perfect marriage between neuroscience and education.