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'Retarded' woman proof that the brain can change itself

Barbara Arrowsmith `built herself a better brain'. Elizabeth Buie finds out more

Barbara Arrowsmith `built herself a better brain'. Elizabeth Buie finds out more

The Canadian psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Norman Doidge explained one of the most important recent scientific breakthroughs to a Scottish audience last month - the discovery that the brain is not "hardwired" but can change itself.

As guest of the Centre for Confidence and Well-being, Dr Doidge presented a series of case studies proving neuro-plasticity - documented in his best-selling book The Brain That Changes Itself - to a packed lecture theatre at Glasgow Caledonian University.

His book is subtitled Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science, and the "story" of greatest significance to education is that of Barbara Arrowsmith, a Canadian woman who was labelled "retarded" because of her various learning disabilities. How she "built herself a better brain", as Dr Doidge puts it, and went on to use these techniques to found schools in Toronto and Peterborough, Ontario, for children with learning disabilities is fascinating.

Born in Toronto in 1951, Barbara had an "asymmetrical" mind as a child. She had areas of brilliance - her auditory and visual memory tested in the 99th percentile; and her frontal lobes were remarkably developed, giving her a driven, dogged quality.

But these coexisted with 19 areas of retardation. The area of her brain devoted to speech, Broca's area, did not work properly and she had problems pronouncing words; she lacked the capacity for spatial reasoning; had a kinaesthetic problem which made it difficult for her to control her body and a decreased sense of touch in her left hand.

The part of her brain that helps to understand the relationships between symbols wasn't functioning normally, so she had trouble understanding grammar, maths concepts, logic and cause and effect. She couldn't read a clock because she couldn't understand the relationship between the hands.

She got through primary school by memorising; at secondary, she did well in fact-based tests but scored low in any on understanding relationships. Barbara could not understand anything in real time, only after the fact. Her emotional development suffered and friendships were difficult.

She gravitated towards the study of child development, hoping to sort things out for herself. As an undergraduate of the University of Guelph, her mental disparities were apparent, but her teachers recognised her ability to pick up non-verbal cues in the child observation laboratory and she was asked to teach the course.

As a postgraduate at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, she met Joshua Cohen, who ran a small clinic for children with learning disabilities. He used the standard treatment - "compensations" - based on the accepted theory of the time, that once brain cells die or fail to develop, they cannot be restored. Compensations work around the problem - so people with trouble reading listen to audiotapes and so on. But Barbara felt there had to be a better way.

She started to read the books of a Russian psychoanalyst, Aleksandr Luria, who had studied a soldier whose brain was damaged by a bullet lodged at the junction of three major perceptual areas affecting sound and language, visual images and spatial relationships. His symptoms were similar to hers - for the first time she realised her main brain deficit had an address, but she did not have a treatment.

If anything, she felt more depressed because she realised how impaired she was - but salvation came in the form of research by an American scientist, Mark Rosenzweig, suggesting that the brains of stimulated rats had more neurotransmitters than those of unstimulated rats. This showed that the brain could be modified and she decided to link Rosenzweig's and Luria's research.

Instead of practising compensation, she exercised her weakened function - relating a number of symbols to each other. One exercise involved reading hundreds of cards picturing clock faces showing different times, with the correct answer written on the back. As she improved, she added hands for seconds and sixtieths of a second. After many exhausting weeks, she could read clocks faster than normal people and noticed improvements in her other difficulties relating to symbols. She began for the first time to grasp grammar, maths and logic. Most importantly, she could understand what people were saying as they said it - for the first time, she began to live in real time. Spurred on, she designed exercises for her other disabilities - space, knowing where her limbs were and vision - and brought them up to average level.

In 1980, she married Cohen and they opened the Arrowsmith School in Toronto. Students undergo various exercises: some do computer-based exercises reading complex 10-handed clocks; some study Urdu and Persian letters to strengthen their visual memories - the shapes of the letters are unfamiliar and the brain exercises require students to learn to recognise the alien shapes quickly; others wear patches on their left eyes and trace intricate lines, squiggles and Chinese letters with pens. The eye path forces visual input into the right eye, then to the side of the brain where they have three related problems - trouble speaking in a smooth, flowing way, writing neatly and reading.

Dr Doidge concludes: "Today, Barbara Arrowsmith Young (as she is now called) is sharp and funny, with no obvious bottlenecks in her mental processes. She flows from one activity to the next, from one child to the next, a master of many skills. She has shown that children with learning disabilities can often go beyond compensations and correct their underlying problem.";

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