The last word 36

The last word
How to rewire a brain
Barbara Arrowsmith-Young overcame the odds to change her life – and along the way helped thousands of others. By Janet Hawley
If it wasn’t for a Russian soldier living with a bullet lodged in his
brain, and then a cage of playful rats, Barbara Arrowsmith-Young
would not have become the woman who changed her own brain.
Nor would she have helped almost 4,000 learning-disabled
children and young adults change their brains, too. At the
Toronto headquarters of her schools – think brain gymnasiums –
Arrowsmith-Young reflects that fate and serendipity can entwine
in the weirdest ways to nudge scientific breakthroughs. Dr
Norman Doidge, the noted Canadian psychiatrist and author of
the best-selling The Brain That Changes Itself, calls ArrowsmithYoung’s personal journey “truly heroic” and puts her work “on a
par with the achievements of Helen Keller”. In a foreword to
Arrowsmith-Young’s autobiography, The Woman Who Changed
Her Brain, published by HarperCollins in May, Doidge calls her
“a bold and ingenious woman… Rarely is the person who makes
the discovery the one with the defect. Barbara is an exception.”
international students attending the Eaton Arrowsmith School in
Vancouver. The mother of a 17-year-old, who recently returned to
Sydney, emailed me a two-page list of therapies her daughter had
undertaken for ten years, adding, “It all paled into insignifi­cance
compared with what Arrowsmith achieved in five months.” Her
daughter, who last year could barely achieve 50% in exams, “just
achieved 95% in advanced English and 80% in chemistry in her
first two HSC assessments”. Arrowsmith-Young cautions: “We
can’t help everyone; our program can’t help intellectually disabled
or autistic children. In some students the turnaround is dramatic,
within a year, but most require three to four years.”
At 26, Arrowsmith-Young read a diary written by a Russian
soldier, shot in the brain in 1943, in which he recorded his
subsequent disabilities. “It was like meeting my twin soul,” she
remarks. “The damage that a bullet had done to Lieutenant
Lyova Zazetsky at age 23, I was given at birth.” The next
year, she learnt of an experiment at the University of
California, Berkeley. “A cage of rats given an enriched
environment, with running wheels and a playground of toys,
grew larger brains than rats kept in a sterile cage. It was my
eureka moment. I decided if rats could grow their brain
capacity bigger and smarter, so could I,” she says with a
defiant grin. “I imagined my own impaired brain as a
muscle, and invented stimulating exercises to target
weak areas that didn’t work correctly. I repeated
exercises over and over, 12 to 14 hours daily,
increasing the degree of difficulty and complexity
month after month. Yes, it was obsessive.”
Arrowsmith-Young explains the difference in her approach:
“The traditional way to help children with learning
disabilities is to avoid the areas of weakness and
work around them; provide com­pensations
like extra time in exams, or simplify their
curriculum. These coping techniques often
continue right through school, like crutches.
“The Arrowsmith way is to target the weak
areas of the brain and strengthen them.
Different exercises strengthen different
cognitive functions. Once the brain is
woken up, it doesn’t revert – it stays
in its new, changed form.”
After more than six months, dormant parts
of her brain began stirring awake. Suddenly
she could function like a normal person.
“It felt like stepping out of a terrible fog into
total clarity,” she says. Without realising it,
Arrowsmith-Young was utilising the principles of neuroplasticity at the same time that
scientists were only beginning experiments in
the field. Previously, science had contended
that the brain is hard-wired at birth. This
view of the unchangeable brain has since
been overturned by clinical trials that show
mental exercise and experience can alter its
structure. Today, a steady stream of apparently
bright kids, who also suffer severe learning
difficulties, attend the 34 schools in Canada
and the US offering the program. Nine
Australian children are among several
THE WEEK 30 March-5 April 2012
To an outsider the exercises seem
slightly bizarre. I watch students
intently clicking away at computer
screens with ten-handed clocks.
Others are memorising a sequence
of shapes, then spotting those
shapes amid a maze of figures on
a screen. In the next classroom,
students sit like pirates with a
patch over one eye, tracing
Hindu script, thus forcing the
weaker side of the brain to work.
It makes sense when you think of
it as physiotherapy for the brain,
strengthening weak areas
through repetitive exercise,
massaging stiff lesions and
increasing flexibility.
Barbara Arrowsmith-Young was
born in Peterborough, Ontario, to
a high-achieving family. Her father,
Typically, the children who can be helped are of average or
above-average intelligence but have various puzzling blocks that
leave them unable to grasp how to read or write fluently, or do
maths, or focus on tasks. They can’t see relationships between
facts, reason logically or understand abstract concepts. Typically,
Arrowsmith-Young (below) is an elegant woman of 60 who moves too, parents have spent fortunes exhausting every avenue –
gracefully, radiating warmth and good humour. It’s a world away
medical and psychological checks; dietary tests; speech, ear, eye
from the frighteningly confused,
therapists; tutors. Parents
tormented loner she was until
describe family heartache,
“It was my eureka moment. I decided if rats watching once-happy kids
age 26. She was born with an
could grow their brain capacity bigger
asymmetrical brain – half her
develop low self-esteem, anxiety
faculties brilliant, half severely
and behavioural problems as
and smarter, so could I”
disabled – but her near-genius
they slide behind their peer
half was unable to control her
group. Tantrums, explosions at
other half, which was a stumbling, mumbling, unfocused dolt.
homework time, and despair are common. No matter how hard
“I grew up regarded as a version of an idiot savant,” she says.
they try, they just can’t “get it”. Often they have been wrongly
“I could parrot the 6pm news verbatim at 11pm, but not
diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and
understand what a word of it meant.”
prescribed medication.
The last word
Jack Young, was an engineer and inventor.
In 1994 both the marriage and business
Her mother, Mary, was a teacher and
partnership with Cohen ended, but
nutritionist. “No one knows why I was
Arrowsmith-Young soldiered on solo.
born with a damaged brain,” she says.
In 2001 she met Doidge, who became
“Perhaps I suffered a stroke at birth, as
impressed with the enhanced outcomes of
I had no awareness or control of the left
her students. Doidge has called her “an
side of my body.” As a child, she was a
outstanding member of the first generation
bewildering mix of extreme capabilities and
of neuroplas­ticians”. He forecasts that great
extreme incapacities. “I had a phenomenal
advances lie ahead, with neuroplasticity
memory. I could recite entire movie scripts
being used in stroke recovery, pain manage­
or lists of facts like a machine, but I had
ment and age-related decline. But education
no ability to use the information, to
authorities have been cautiously slow in
process it. I had no concept of humour,
adopting Arrowsmith-Young’s techniques.
irony, metaphor, sarcasm, conning or
The most common concern is that students
deceit, so I was unable to understand social
Eye exercises targeting the brain’s weaker side already struggling with the curriculum will
relation-ships. I’d replay conversations over
fall further behind if withdrawn from it to
and again, trying to grasp what was meant.”
attend an Arrowsmith program. It requires a leap of faith to
commit to a short-term strategy, hoping for long-term gain.
Desperately wanting to please her parents, Barbara memorised
schoolwork, going over it multiple times. “It was like trying
Deborah Thompson, a Toronto financial analyst who sent her
to catch a beam of light,” she says. “If an exam was fact-based
son, Sam, to Arrowsmith, said, “People told my husband and me
I’d get 100%, but if it required reasoning I’d fail dismally.
we were destroying Sam’s life, that we might as well be throwing
Teachers couldn’t understand how I could be so bright yet so
chicken bones on the floor and doing voodoo. But Sam was seven
stupid.” She had few friends and her self-esteem plummeted.
and reading was torture for him. He had significant problems; he
“My beloved cat, Star, was my best friend. I’d pour out my
couldn’t get his words out. We knew there were pathways in his
misery to him.”
brain, but the metaphor I use is that it took Arrowsmith to sweep
the snow off the pathways.” Sam returned to regular school after
Moving into senior school, her disabilities became more obvious.
three years at Arrowsmith. Now 19, he is a voracious reader and
“Studying was like swimming through quicksand. I’d go down to
lucid talker and is studying business administration at university.
the basement and pound my head against the dryer.” Scraping
into the University of Guelph in Ontario, she began a Bachelor of
Devorah Garland, a tall, blonde, confident Canadian journalist,
Applied Science in Child Studies, hoping to better understand her
was a member of that first class in the inaugural 1978 program.
condition. Serendipity finally arrived. A handsome PhD student
“I owe my life to Barbara,” she declares. “When I finished school
named Joshua Cohen gave her a book written by the Russian
I was an educational failure, with such low self-regard that I could
neuropsychologist Aleksandr Luria, The Man with a Shattered
only think of using my looks to become a prostitute or marry a
World: The History of a Brain Wound. Luria did an enormous
sugar daddy.” A counsellor suggested she enrol in the program. “I
amount of research on brains (he had many wounded Russian
couldn’t process information, I had no idea what humour was, my
soldiers to work on) and intricately mapped the regions respons­
vision was two-dimensional, so the world looked like cardboard
ible for various functions. The more Arrowsmith-Young read, the
cutouts. Within a year, Barbara fixed my brain. I could reason and
more her intuitive light bulbs flashed. “The bullet had lodged in
see in perspective. I began to get humour – hey, I could actually
his left occipital-temporal-parietal region, which integrates signals
tell a joke!” She set a new career course, studying journalism.
from the lobes responsible for vision, sound, language and touch.
Now I knew what part of my brain was blocked.”
Doidge considers learning disorders to be one of the most under­estimated underlying causes of failure at school and in life. “It
Then she read about the rats exercising their way to bigger brains,
wrenches my heart to think of all the children, sitting in schools
and devised her first cognitive exercise. Never able to tell the time,
throughout the world, wiring into their brains each day the idea
she created hundreds of flashcards with clock hands, and for 12
that they are dumb or useless or losers, because many educators
hours a day compelled herself to recognise the relationship between are still under the sway of the doctrine of the unchanging brain.”
the two hands. Six months “finally activated the moribund part of
my brain, getting the neurons to fire in order to forge new neural
I put it to Arrowsmith-Young that her life sounds a bit like
pathways”. She devised further exercises and fairly soon, she says, Sleeping Beauty waking up after being kissed by the Prince.
all her functions unfogged. With her new clarity, she completed
“Yes,” she replies with a soft laugh, “but I was my own prince.”
a master’s degree in psychology. She also married Cohen and in
1978 they began teaching the program before, in 1980, setting
Barbara Arrowsmith-Young will appear at the Sydney Writers’
up their first school in Toronto with eight students.
Festival in May. This article first appeared in Good Weekend.
For the week that was:
37°C at
Bradshaw, NT,
on 27 March
342.2mm at
Daradgee, Qld,
on 26 March
11.5 hours at
Alice Springs,
NT, on
23 March
-4°C at Perisher
Valley, NSW,
on 25 March
La Niña – the principle cause of eastern Australia’s wet summer – has
officially ended. The ocean and weather conditions in the Pacific are
returning to normal, meaning the climate should be near average
over the next few months. In Tasmania, a cold front that swept through
south-east Australia reduced Butlers Gorge to just 2°C – its coldest
March day in 55 years. Additionally, Hobart had its coldest March day
(12°C) since 1957. Meanwhile, Central Australia experienced its biggest
earthquake in 15 years. Measuring 6.1 on the Richter scale, the epicentre
was near Ernabella, in South Australia’s far north on Saturday, but
nobody was hurt.
A magnitude-7.1 quake also struck near Talca in central Chile, about
250km south-west of Santiago on Sunday. No deaths have been reported,
though residents were left shaken. On Monday, the temperature at
Cromdale in Moray, Scotland, reached a record-breaking 23.3°C.
Statistics supplied by weatherzone (
30 March-5 April 2012 THE WEEK