How Barbara Arrowsmith Young Changed Her Brain
Excerpted from the book: The Brain That Changes Itself
Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science
By Norman Doidge, MD, Penguin Publishing, December, 2007
"Asymmetry" is the word that best describes her mind when she was a schoolgirl. Born in Toronto in 1951 and raised in Peterborough, Ontario, Barbara had areas of brilliance as a child — her auditory and visual memory both tested in the ninety-ninth percentile. Her frontal lobes were remarkably developed, giving her a driven, dogged quality. But her brain was "asymmetrical," meaning that these exceptional abilities coexisted with areas of retardation.
She had a confusing assortment of serious learning disabilities. The area of her brain devoted to speech, Broca's area, was not working properly, so she had trouble pronouncing words. She also lacked the capacity for spatial reasoning. She also had a "kinesthetic" problem. Kinesthetic perception allows us to be aware of where our body or limbs are in space, enabling us to control and coordinate our movements. It also helps us recognize objects by touch. But Barbara could never tell how far her arms or legs had moved on her left side. Though a tomboy in spirit, she was clumsy. She couldn't hold a cup of juice in her left hand without spilling it. She frequently tripped or stumbled. Stairs were treacherous.
She had a visual disability as well. Her span of vision was so narrow that when she looked at a page of writing, she could take in only a few letters at a time. But these were not her most debilitating problems. Because the part of her brain that helps to understand the relationships between symbols wasn't functioning normally, she had trouble understanding grammar, math concepts, logic, and cause and effect. She couldn't distinguish between "the father's brother" and "the brother's father."
She literally couldn't tell her left hand from her right, not only because she lacked a spatial map but because she couldn't understand the relationship between "left" and "right." Only with extraordinary mental effort and constant repetition could she learn to relate symbols to one another. She reversed b, d, q, and p, read "was" as "saw," and read and wrote from right to left, a disability called mirror writing.
Unable to understand cause and effect, she did odd things socially because she couldn't connect behavior with its consequences. She learned to use her memory to cover her deficits and with practice could remember pages of facts. Before tests she prayed they would be fact-based, knowing she could score 100; if they were based on understanding relationships, she would probably score in the low teens.
Barbara understood nothing in real time, only after the fact, in lag time.
But what plagued her most was the chronic doubt and uncertainty that she felt about everything. She sensed meaning everywhere but could never verify it. Her motto was "I don't get it." She told herself, "I live in a fog, and the world is no more solid than cotton candy." Like many children with serious learning disabilities, she began to think she might be crazy.
He lived with fragments and wrote, 'I'm in a fog all the time... All that flashes through my mind are images, hazy visions that suddenly appear and just as suddenly disappear... I simply can't understand or remember what these mean."
Reading Zazetsky's diary, Barbara thought "He is describing my life."
In the 1961 Mark Roseneig of the University of California at Berkeley had studied rats in stimulating and non-stimulating environments, and in postmortem exams he found that the brains of the stimulated rats had more neurotransmitters, were heavier, and had better blood supply than those from the less stimulating environments. He was one of the first scientists to demonstrate neuroplasticity by showing that activity and environment could produce changes in the structure of the brain.
For Barbara, lightning struck. Rosenzweig had shown that the brain could be modified. Though many doubted it, to her this meant that compensation might not be the only answer. Her own breakthrough would be to link Rosenzweig's and Luria's research.
She isolated herself and began toiling to the point of exhaustion, week after week — with only brief breaks for sleep — at mental exercises she designed, though she had no guarantee they would lead anywhere.
Instead of practicing compensation, she exercised her most weakened function — relating a number of symbols to each other, One exercise involved reading hundreds of cards picturing clock faces showing different times. She had Joshua Cohen write the correct time on the backs. She shuffled the cards so she couldn't memorize the answers. She turned up a card, attempted to tell the time, checked the answer, then moved on to the next card as fast as she could.
At the end of many exhausting weeks, not only could she read clocks faster than normal people, but she noticed improvements in her other difficulties relating to symbols and began for the first time to grasp grammar, math, and logic. Most important, she could understand what people were saying as they said it. For the first time in her life, she began to live in real time. Spurred on by her initial success, she designed exercises for her other disabilities — her difficulties with space, her trouble with knowing where her limbs were, and her visual disabilities — and brought them up to average level.
If this post strikes a chord with you, we take brain plasticity possibilities a step further in Impossible Dream, the extraordinary story of triumph over disability told from the first-person perspective of a young woman living with autism.