How Barbara Arrowsmith-Young Rebuilt Her Own Brain

She realized that part of her brain was not functioning properly so she devised a series of cognitive exercises to develop it. The results changed her life – and now she has helped thousands of children with learning disabilities (Click here to view her book on

It’s the kind of memory that stays with you. When she was in first grade, Barbara Arrowsmith-Young‘s Ontario primary school teacher told her mother – in her presence – that she had some kind of “mental block”, and would never be able to learn. Now that she has helped more than 4,000 learning-disabled children overcome precisely that kind of diagnosis, of course, she can laugh at it. But she didn’t at the time.

Arrowsmith-Young, now 61, talks fluently and passionately and with great erudition. She has a masters  degree in school psychology. She has just published a groundbreaking, widely praised and enthralling book called The Woman Who Changed Her Brain. But back at school – indeed, up until she was in her mid-20s – she was desperate. Tormented and often depressed. She didn’t know what was wrong.

On the one hand, she was brilliant. She had near-total auditory and visual memory. “I could listen to the six o’clock news, and reproduce it word-for-word at 11pm. I could open a book, read the first sentence, the second, the third, visualise them. I could memorise whole exercise books.” On the other hand, she was a dolt. “I didn’t understand anything,” she says. “Meaning just never crystallised. Everything was fragmented, disconnected.”

She could recite film scripts, but not grasp the relationship between the hands of a clock to tell the time. So in exams, she often got 100%. Other times, whenever the task involvedreasoning, logic, connection, interpretation, or when she simply pulled in the wrong information from her memory, she would get 10%. “The teachers did not understand,” she says. “At school I used to get the strap, for not trying. They really thought I wasn’t trying.”

Her mother, a teacher, devised a series of flash cards with numbers and letters and, by dint of much hard work, she achieved literacy and numeracy, of a sort. “For a long time, I reversed almost every letter and number,” she says. “I was just not attaching meaning to symbols.” In secondary school, and later at university, she disguised her numerous learning disabilities by working 20 hours a day: “I used to hide in the bathroom when the security guards came around the college library at night, then come back out and carry on.”

The breakthrough came when she was 26. A fellow student gave her a book by a Russian neuro-psychologist, Aleksandr Luria: The Man with a Shattered World. The book contained Luria’s research and reflections on the writings of a highly intelligent Russian soldier, Lyova Zazetsky, who had been shot in the brain at the battle of Smolensk in 1943, and recorded in great detail his subsequent disabilities.

For the first time, Arrowsmith-Young says, “I recognised somebody describing exactly what I experienced. His expressions were the same: living life in a fog. His difficulties were the same: he couldn’t tell the time from a clock, he couldn’t understand bigger and smaller without drawing pictures, he couldn’t tell the difference between the sentences ‘The boy chases the dog’ and ‘The dog chases the boy.’ I began to see that maybe an area of my brain wasn’t working.”

Reading Luria’s research, Arrowsmith-Young learned that the bullet that struck Zazetsky had lodged in his left occipital-temporal-parietal region – the critical junction where, in principle, all incoming information from the lobes responsible for sight, sound, language and touch is synthesised, analysed and made sense of. She realised that, in all probability, this was the region of her own brain that had been malfunctioning since she was born.

by Jon Henley at The Guardian

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