The Woman Who Changed Her Brain: And Other Inspiring Stories of Pioneering Brain Transformation by Barbara Arrowsmith-Young

Review:

The Woman Who Changed Her Brain: And Other Inspiring Stories of Pioneering Brain Transformation - Barbara Arrowsmith-Young,Norman DoidgeA truly interesting story and program that I had never heard of. It makes me wish this kind of testing and solutions were more prolific.

Born with severe learning disabilities that caused teachers to label her slow, stubborn, or worse, Barbara Arrowsmith-Young read and wrote everything backwards, struggled to process concepts in language, continually got lost, and could make no sense of an analog clock. But through her formidable memory and determination, she made her way to graduate school, where she chanced upon research that inspired her to invent cognitive exercises to “fix” her brain. Now the Director of Arrowsmith School, the author interweaves her personal tale with riveting case histories from her more than 30 years of working with both children and adults to restructure their own brains.

The Woman Who Changed Her Brain powerfully and poignantly illustrates how the lives of children and adults struggling with learning disorders can be dramatically transformed. This remarkable book by a brilliant pathbreaker deepens our understanding of how the brain works and of the brain’s profound impact on how we participate in the world. Our brains shape us, but this book offers clear and hopeful evidence of the corollary: we can shape our brains.

This is the kind of title that really catches my attention, especially in non-fiction. I’m a huge fan of non-fiction. The whole concept of the Arrowsmith school amazes me. This book not only does a great job of recounting the life of Barbara Arrowsmith-Young, in her own words, but also many of the categories of deficits that people can have and that hinder their potential. I found myself thinking about some bright underachievers I know and wondering if the program would suit them.

The idea that you can simply train your brain past learning disorders by finding a way to trigger that part of the brain into action is exciting. The possibilities then seem endless for everyone. I know that there are implementation issues, especially since it doesn’t seem feasible that this can be done online for now and because not many schools have this program yet, but I’m hopeful, given the growth the program has had and the countless success stories. Maybe we’ll look back one day at all the research and programs done by the Arrowsmith team and see an entirely different world for children and their potential than we do now.

While her own story and the formation of the school were interesting, I was particularly drawn to the stories of the students and the cognitive exercises created to help them past their learning disorders. I was surprised that it sometimes took years after starting a set of exercises to really see progress in normal life, but that students persisted through them. I know far too many people that would have given up in a few weeks if they weren’t seeing improvement. I was also impressed with the parents who sent their children to be evaluated and who enrolled them into the school later. I looked up the school and just the evaluation is $2000. But in the words of one person, “You pay it now or you pay it later.”

I can’t remember if that was a student or a parent, but it remains a good point. The people who benefit from this program are people who are intelligent but have learning disorders that hinder their ability to get a rounded education and then later hinder their ability to get or keep a good job. Many of the adult students had been labeled “bright but lazy” or as underachievers because a deficit, as the book actually calls it, kept them from learning a skill that they needed.

I really did appreciated using “deficit” instead of “disorder”. It was a great substitution because deficit implies that a person doesn’t have something rather the way disorder makes it seem like something is wrong with that person.  Maybe it’s just semantics but I feel like picking up a skill that’s hard to get is a lot better of a way to frame it than trying to “fix” someone.

This was a fascinating read, well listen. I listened to the audiobook while I was cleaning the house I was moving out of and then while doing some prep work on the one that I moved into. I would just let it run, set up on a chair, and my husband wandered in after a while to comment on how interesting he was finding it too. It amused me because normally he couldn’t care less about whatever book I’m playing. It caught his attention too because of the way it takes great care to describe each deficit, tie it to a personal experience of some student, give a way to relate to it or experience a small part of the decifit and then elaborate on what was done to attain the skill that it blocked. It also went into the coping or compensation methods that the students had prior to being treated, which were fascinating to listen to. We all compensate for things we aren’t so good at with things we are good at, but the level of compensations necessary were astounding.

My husband also recently had a concussion and his resulting troubles added a new level of interest for me to the work that had originally drawn Young to her work, Alexander Luria’s work with brain trauma. That was an interesting story that I’d like to read one day too.

I did find it a little disappointing that the book didn’t go into deeper detail on the exercises that were created to address some of the deficits, but I get the risk that could be imposed in doing so. I wouldn’t want any sort of medical book to be detailed enough for someone with half an inclination to try to fix themselves or those around them. It should be left to professionals.

Personally, I think it would be great if everyone who works with children had read the book and if there were many more programs in schools. I am not proposing the system subscribe to this one method but I feel like it could be a good augment to many existing programs that address learning disorders. Schools could potentially do an assessment on students at the beginning of giving them compensations so that they could both get by with what they can do now, but also attain the missing skill when possible. It seems like that would be a win for everyone. But I’m no professional and wouldn’t know the reasons for not incorporating something like this in a school system other than cost. I do get how costs of things can be prohibitive in public school systems and, as stated above, the assessment is quite expensive.

I borrowed this book from the library, but click on the cover for worldwide purchase options if you’d rather go that route.

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3 thoughts on “The Woman Who Changed Her Brain: And Other Inspiring Stories of Pioneering Brain Transformation by Barbara Arrowsmith-Young

  1. Wow, this book sounds fascinating! Years ago I worked for the National Institute for Conductive Education, which is a UK charity that helps people with motor disorders (problems with their fine motor skills like pinching your fingers together, caused by things like head injuries, strokes, cerebral palsy etc). It’s hard to explain but basically by counting, singing etc. whilst at the same time practicing using your motor skills you can literally utilise different neural pathways to avoid using the part of the brain that has been damaged. Is this a similar technique to what is discussed in the woman who changed her brain?

    Liked by 1 person

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