Barbara Arrowsmith-Young [ 21 APR 2016 | Neuroplasticity | 1:08:32 ] My life and my work has been an exploration of the territory of the human brain, how it makes us uniquely who we are. Because when we think about our brain, it filters our perceptions of ourselves and our understanding of ourselves, our understanding of other people, our understanding of the world, and our understanding of our relationship to that.
To me, what’s really promising is not only does our brain shape who we are, but now we know with this concept of neuroplasticity that we can actually shape our brain if we can understand how we can harness those principles.
What’s really interesting, we often hear the comment about he or she is just not good at that. And we often attribute not being good at something as coming out of maybe an emotional base — that person is just rude or they’re not good socially.
I encourage people to start to look at behavior through a cognitive lens. Behavior’s multiply determined. It’s not just cognitive. But we ignore the cognitive. If there’s any part of our brain that isn’t fully operational or functioning, it will have an impact in terms of our behavior.
I’m going to take you a little bit into that world today.
Science has taught us that our brain really does shape us. If we think about how complex it is, we have something on the order of 86 billion neurons that we’re carrying around in our head. To put that into perspective, the world’s population is somewhere between 7 and 8 billion, so incredible complexity.
And we have several hundred trillion connections or superhighways in the brain, connecting different regions for neural transmission and communication. And again, to put that into perspective, we have more connections in our brain than all the stars in the Milky Way galaxy– so incredibly complex.
We can’t really escape our brain, because we carry it everywhere we go.
What I find really fascinating is no two brains are exactly alike. If you think about somebody that you know well or you look at somebody sitting next to you, and you note that there are physical differences between the two of you. You may have different eye color or different shape of your nose, different shape of your ears. There are actually more differences between your two brains than all of those physical differences combined. So our brain really does make us uniquely who we are.
What’s really promising is this concept of neuroplasticity.
We now know that we can actually grow new neurons in the brain, in the hippocampus, which is important for memory and for learning. We know that we can increase neurotransmitters. We know that we can increase the branches, the dendrites, on the neurons to enhance neural transmission. We can actually change our brain.
My story begins with my brain.
It’s really a story of a quest and a hunt for a solution to my very severe learning disabilities that were identified in grade 1. It’s a very personal story, but it’s also universal in that each and every one of us has a brain that impacts our functioning.
If we think about having a brain that’s capable and incapable at the same time, that’s the experience of someone with a learning difficulty. There are things that we can do very easily, and then there are other things that with the best will in the world they’re really incredibly challenging. And that certainly was my experience.
Growing up, I lived in a world that was about as intelligible as Lewis Carroll’s poem “The Jabberwocky.” I didn’t understand, at the time, that I couldn’t process language. I heard the words. I knew what the words were, but I struggled to interpret them, to attach meaning to them.
I could understand things very concretely.
If somebody said it’s raining outside, which I understand it does quite a bit here in Seattle, I could understand that because I could conjure up a visual image of rain. But as soon as it got abstract, conceptual, it was impossible to me. Something as simple as– I couldn’t understand how my aunt could also be my mother’s sister. I could not understand. How could somebody have two relationships?
In terms of numbers, I could understand 1 because I could put one object up here. I could understand 4 because I could line up four objects. You put that 1 over top of a 4, which is a relationship of a part to a whole, it meant nothing to me. Bigger than, greater than, less than, under, over, anything that had a relational connotation was incredibly difficult or impossible for me to understand.
My notebooks were filled with diagrams. I used my right hemisphere to try to interpret language by making drawings to try to connect the relationships.
Things as simple as jokes– I didn’t understand jokes because it depends on irony. Not wanting to feel left out as a child, I would laugh as much as everybody else was laughing because I didn’t want to feel left out. But I had no idea what they were laughing at.
I was really vulnerable to con artists because how do you understand that you’re being conned? You hear logical inconsistency in what somebody was saying. Well, for me, there was no logic in my world so there were no logical inconsistency. So I easily believed what people told me.
Something as simple as telling time– I couldn’t read an analog clock. In fact, I couldn’t read an analog clock until I was 26 and created my first exercise for myself because, to interpret time, you have to understand the relationship between the hour hand and the minute hand, and I couldn’t understand that relationship.
So any kind of abstract ideas, concepts, were hard.
I got identified in grade 1 as being rigid and stubborn. And I really was rigid and stubborn, but again, not coming from an emotional place. It was a cognitive difficulty. Because for me, any kind of understanding was so hard won.
If I came to understand something, I wanted to hold onto it for dear life. And if somebody said, well, think about another way of doing something, think about an alternative, it felt like I had to let go of this, that was so hard for me to grasp, to integrate something else. And I just felt my whole world would fall apart.
Maybe in your lives you know somebody that’s really rigid and stubborn, and it might be because they can’t compare and contrast. They can’t see alternatives or weigh decisions or differences.
What ended up happening in my life was that very fragmented and fractured view of my world– because nothing connected. There was no cause and effect in my world. In fact, I thought there was some puppet master up there pulling strings because I couldn’t understand why things happened. It led to an incredibly fractured and fragmented sense of myself.
I described my world as living in a fog where meaning was just ephemeral, and it would disappear into a mist of uncertainty. I joke that I lived in amygdala hell. I was terrified all the time because I didn’t understand the meaning of what was happening around me.
And if that wasn’t enough, I had another difficulty.
I had what would be considered multiple learning disabilities. I struggled to register the location of sensation on the left side of my body. Most people, if you put your hand on a hot burner, your brain is going to tell you pain. It’s going to tell you pain in your left hand. Pull it up. It’s going to be an automatic process. You’re not going to stop and think about it. For me, my brain would tell me pain, but it wouldn’t register where the pain was coming from. So I’d leave my hand on the hot burner, which really wasn’t a very good idea.
I learned, probably around age three or four, that I had to watch the left side of my body because it would do things. It was almost like an alien being. It would do things.
I slammed a car door on my head once with my left hand and shattered a tooth. My mother was convinced, by probably about age 5, that I would not live very long because I was so accident-prone. But it was a cognitive area that just wouldn’t register the location of sensation.
Imagine me on a sports team. I mean, I struggled academically. Nobody wanted me on their sports team in school, and I understood why.
I truly wasn’t an asset because I was so clumsy and ended up being bruised and banged and kind of battered. And then imagine me driving a car. If I didn’t know where the left side of my body was, once I started to drive a car, I didn’t know where the left side of that car was. So not only was my body bruised and banged– it was actually my parents’ car, because when I first started driving, their car was bruised and banged and dented on the left side by extension.
And then there was another area that wasn’t working, the area that allows you to represent three dimensional space inside your head. I couldn’t do that.
I couldn’t create maps inside my head. Geography, geometry any activity– chess, checkers– that involved a spatial component was really, really hard for me. And again, things that we take for granted, like crossing the street, was really terrifying because when you cross the street, what you actually do, kind of automatically, is you create a mental map of where you are relative to that car coming at you. I couldn’t do that, so I had no idea where I was relative to that car.
My compensation was to walk blocks out of my way to find a stop sign or a stop light where I knew cars had to stop and would be relatively safe crossing.
My other strategy was to wait by the side of the road until somebody else came along to cross, and I would follow them, and pray that they didn’t have the same difficulty that I did and that we’d get across safely.
I used to joke that I would be as safe crossing the street with my eyes closed as with my eyes open, which was probably pretty accurate, because I couldn’t do that spatial representation.
I would always get lost because, for me, there were no maps. I didn’t even understand that streets connected . I couldn’t hold any kind of spatial representation in my head. Any time I went somewhere, I had to calculate in what I called “lost time.” I would always give myself extra time because I knew I would get lost several times before I finally found my way.
Those were some of the areas, the main ones, that I struggled with.
When I began my schooling in the 1950s, it was in the time of what I call the pre-neuroplastic paradigm, when I started in grade 1, the traditional belief was, if you have a learning problem or there’s a problem in your brain, there’s nothing you can do about it. Basically the brain you’re born with is the brain you die with. There was no concept of neuroplasticity. In fact, people believed there was no such thing as neuroplasticity– most people.
So in grade 1, I overheard my teacher tell my mother that I had a mental block, because this was before the term “learning disability” had even been invented. And being very concrete, I just actually imagined that I had a piece of wood, like a nice wooden cube, lodged in my head that made learning really difficult.
Later I learned I didn’t have a wooden cube, but in a sense, I had blockages. There were parts of my brain that weren’t working properly.
Imagine, in grade 1, I was given a life sentence, told that I would never learn like other children, that all of my academic career would be an incredible struggle, and that I was condemned to living in that world of disconnected elements and confusion and fog. And that really was my experience going through school.
I did eventually learn how to read and to write and do simple numeracy. I used my strengths. I have a verbatim auditory memory . I can listen to things and just like a little tape recorder remember them.
I have a photographic visual memory, so I can look at print and remember.
That’s what got me through. And I had incredible drive and determination. I never understood anything, but I could memorize it and then match it up on the exam.
I would get anywhere from 10% on an exam to 100%, depending if I made the right match. The 10%, you know, I made a really bad match because I didn’t really understand what was being asked. The 100%, I made a better match, probably really didn’t understand what was going on, but I just was lucky to make a better match. But what my teachers would conclude, if I could get 100% at one point and I got 10%, I must not have worked very hard for that 10%. But I worked as hard for the 10% as I did for the 100%.
So certainly, it was a confusing picture for teachers.
I was very, very lucky. My father was a scientist and an inventor, had something on the order of 40 patents. He conditioned electricity. I caught that creative passion from him. I really didn’t understand anything that he was doing, but I felt that desire to create. And he told me as I was growing up, he said, if there’s a problem in your life, and there’s no solution out there in the world, he said, it’s your responsibility to go out and find a solution to the problem.
He also said something really wise that I’ve taken with me through my life. He said, don’t be limited by conventional wisdom. If the rest of the world tells you you can’t do this, ignore them. Don’t listen. Go out and do it. So I set on a quest to try to find a solution to my difficulties.
The solution came– two brilliant researchers.
The first one, Alexander Luria, a Russian neuropsychologist doing a lot of work in Russia after World War II, where there were a lot of Russian soldiers with very localized head wounds. And what he would do was investigate, clinically, by giving them tests to try to understand if there’s damage to this part of the brain, what can the person no longer do? By inference, what does that part of the brain do?
He’s really one of the seminal thinkers in neuropsychology, and neuroscience, that started to map the brain many, many years ago. He helped with identification of the function of different parts of the brain.
I came across a book that he had written called “The Man with the Shattered World,” and it was a story of a Russian soldier who, in 1943 in the battle of Smolensk, had a shrapnel wound to a part of his brain in the left hemisphere, very localized wound. As I read this man’s story, I thought, this man is living my life several decades earlier and halfway around the world in Russia.
He was using the same language in his journal, talking about living in a fog where meaning was ephemeral and would disappear, that I was using in my journal, decades later in Canada.
I had an epiphany at that point because I knew I had terrible problems, but I had no idea what the source of the problems were. To solve a problem, you have to get an idea of what the nature of the problem is.
So now into the nature. I knew it was part of my brain that wasn’t working properly.
So that was great. But then what do I do about that?
The next piece of the puzzle came in the work of Mark Rosenzweig. He was in Berkeley working with rats because they’re a lot easier to work with than people. What he was doing was putting rats in a really enriched environment, with a lot of stimulation, then he would compare them to rats in a normal or an unenriched environment. And he would put them in little rat intelligence tests, which is running a maze, and he found those rats that had had the enriched experience were able to learn the maze much more efficiently and effectively .
And then because they were rats, he cut their heads open and looked at their brains.
What he found was that the brains had changed physiologically for those rats that had the enrichment. There were more neurotransmitters. There were more– you can see you the slide of the neuron, more dendrite, more synaptic connections if there are more dendritic branches, more glial cells, enlarged capillaries, so more blood flowing to the regions.
There are something like 12 physiological variables that had changed with the enrichment that led to– he inferred– the improved performance on the mazes.
I had to infer, even though nobody was looking at it at that time, that if rats had neuroplasticity, humans must have neuroplasticity. I thought that we probably had more neuroplasticity than rats. So I thought if I can take Lurie’s work and understand the nature of what that part of the brain is supposed to do, what’s its job is and its function, maybe I could find an activity or a task that would stimulate it to make it work.
It might not work, because the rest of world was saying it couldn’t, but what did I have to lose other than time?
I was 25, 26.
I couldn’t tell time, so I figured, what does it really matter? Let me try it. So at the age of 26, I set out with the first exercise, and what did I use? I used clocks– not that I wanted to get better at telling time, but the concept is, you need to force the brain to do what it’s designed to do but what is really difficult.
I couldn’t do the relational piece, so I used the clocks to force processing relationships . And I got really fast at reading a two-handed clock really accurately. I was pretty abysmal at the beginning, so that was great.
Now I could tell time, but I didn’t feel any cognitive change. To drive neuroplastic change, you have to increase novelty and complexity . So I kept adding more hands, more relationships. And now we have a 10-handed clock, which anybody can benefit from.
Of the two people that had ever looked at it and interpreted it, one had discovered quasars, radio-emitting galaxies. He was an astronomer. And the other was a physicist from Harvard. So I knew I was on to something with this really advanced level.
In fact, right now I’m talking to a university in Spain, and they’re looking at putting that reasoning exercise into their universities, so every student will go into a cognitive lab and work on that exercise four hours a week. And over a 10-month span, we’ll supercharge that cognitive function in terms of being able to reason . It’s that ability to process relationships simultaneously. It’s insight, like all this information, disparate information, comes together, and you say, aha. That’s what that means. That’s what this function is.
And also what I found interesting is I’ve worked with a number of psychiatrists.
My head school’s in Toronto, and as Nate mentioned, there are schools all around the world that implement this program. If somebody has this problem, they can’t benefit from insight therapy. Because insight therapy means that you have to make cause and effect. You have to see relationships between your behavior and emotions and other people’s actions. As students work on this exercise, if they’re in a therapeutic process, what the psychiatrist or psychologist always reports is at the level– it’s about the four relationship level of the exercise they start to benefit from insight therapy. So really very profound capacity, that’s not just going to affect the person in school but in their whole life.
I’ve had some students that have come to me that have been misdiagnosed as having Asperger’s, which is a high functioning autism, because they have a severe difficulty in this function. And as we address this function, it’s very clear that they don’t have Asperger’s. It was just they couldn’t connect meaning to situations. So they walked around totally disengaged and not able to relate to the world . So pretty important area.
As I worked on this and saw the change, for me, what happened was I could now start to live in what I call real time. Whereas before, I lived in what I called lag time.
Because if I listened to a conversation, I would memorize it. I would have that little tape recorder going, and I would walk away and maybe go over and over and over it for two, three hours to try to understand those people were saying. In some cases I could, and in some cases I couldn’t. But even if I could, it was three hours after the conversation, so I couldn’t be part of that human discourse.
Now I could listen to somebody. I could understand as they were talking. I could actually make a comment and interject, understand what they said back to me. I was actually part of human discourse, and it was very, very profound.
I could also now grasp math concepts. I could understand fractions. I went back and taught myself all of elementary, high school, and college mathematics. Now I could understand it from first principles rather than just memorizing formulas and plugging in numbers . I was no longer rigid because I could contrast and compare and weigh decisions and see alternatives.
I could understand jokes. I could tell time. And I was no longer vulnerable to con artists. So all of that changed as a result of one cognitive exercise.
Then I thought, can I create an exercise to address the two other problems that I talked about?
The first one, the somatosensory cortex — you have two strips on either side of your brain — the somatosensory cortex here controls registering and location of sensation on your left side, and then this one controls the right side. So I knew to create an exercise, I had to do something with my eyes closed because my compensation was with my eyes watching what that side of my body was doing and really regulate movement through vision not through sensory feedback .
I created a whole complex exercise of doing movements with that side of my body with my eyes closed and overcame that problem . I can now register sensation on the left side of my body, the location of sensation. I don’t bump into things. I don’t trip over my feet, all of that, because I didn’t know– if I went to walk out a door, I’d just as likely hit the door frame as go through the middle of the door because I didn’t know where the side of my body was. So addressed that.
Also, if I picked up something in my left hand, the first row in the audience might end up wearing it, because I couldn’t regulate movement.
I would over move or under move or drop things. I can do all that now. And to me what’s powerful if we can understand this concept of neuroplasticity is we’re not teaching skills. We’re not teaching content. We’re not teaching the person how to do or learn an activity. We’re changing the brain’s capacity to then learn, to learn content, to learn strategies, to learn information. And given that we carry our brain with us everywhere, it’s incredibly powerful to go under the content, into the brain, and stimulate that function.
And then the other area, in the parietal, this is a spatial area. And again, I knew to create an exercise there that I had to do something with a spatial component and do it over and over again. So I created an exercise and saw the change. And now I think in the last three years I’ve gone around the world a few times talking about this work, and I don’t get lost. I can actually read maps. And I can navigate. I can go to IKEA and buy one of those bookcases or cupboards and go from a two dimensional representation and build a three dimensional representation, which before I couldn’t. I would put the back of the bookcase on upside down and backwards because you can’t translate two dimensional representation into three dimensional space. I can do that now.
For me, those words “some assembly required” before would strike terror into my heart. Now I know I can assemble things.
Interestingly, some of these are genetic, inherited. My mother and I both had severe difficulty. And these things work on a continuum. You can be exceptionally strong in an area. You can have average functioning. You can have a mild problem, moderate problem, severe problem, so anywhere on the continuum.
My mother and I were at the severe end of this. As a child, getting into the car with my mother– she had a good attitude. She said it’s going to be an adventure because neither of us had any maps in our head. We knew where we were starting. We knew sort of where we wanted to end up, but it was like a black hole in between. And she said, we’ll always get there, which we always did. And we never got there the same way twice.
But it was an adventure.
As I got older, and understood more about these cognitive functions, I asked her, did this ever have an impact other than it took you longer to get anywhere? And she shared with me when she’d gone to university, she’d wanted to be a chemist, but in her first year she was encouraged to drop chemistry and went into home economics. She couldn’t construct those molecules, like that spatial representation inside your head. It was just impossible for her.
I really struggled also with organic chemistry because of this difficulty in university. Interestingly again, as they work on a continuum, I have four brothers. And my oldest brother has this at a mild level, not enough to interfere with him becoming a chemist, which he did, at the University of Toronto. But he became a physical chemist because it still was hard for him to construct those molecules.
So what I’ve learned in this work is that there’s no free ride, in a sense.
If there’s a cognitive area of difficulty, it will have some impact. It just depends on what it is, the degree that it’s there, and what you’re doing in your life in terms of whether it limits you. So in the work that I’ve created, I currently can identify 19 cognitive functions.
If people are interested, on our website down here at the bottom, there’s a cognitive profile questionnaire. I think there’s about 250 questions on it. You can go in and answer these questions. It’s all confidential. And at the end, based on your responses, it’ll give you a profile of where, by your answers, there might be some difficulties.
And when you go on the website and read more information, if somebody is interested. Currently we have programs for 18 cognitive functions .
I’m very clear that this isn’t everything that can go wrong with learning, but it’s a broad range from the person that struggles with nonverbal interpretation of situations. Face blindness I have a program for, a person that can’t recognize landmarks so can’t navigate because they don’t remember the look of a place; spatial, the person that gets lost because they can’t hold maps or three dimensional representation; auditory memory, the person that just can’t hold information; numeracy, the person that doesn’t understand number– a broad range of different cognitive deficits.
If you’re working on an area, you first need to identify where the problem is. And if anybody hears somebody say, this one program is going to fix everything, I would say run as quickly as you can in the other direction. Because in terms of the brain, there’s no one size fits all. We have an incredibly complex organ here, and I believe for something to work effectively, it has to be differentiated, targeted stimulation to that function.
For example, if we think about reading, this is blood flow study looking at all the brain areas that come together when somebody is reading.
So there is no reading area in the brain. The brain works in what Luria called a functional system, what we now call a neural network, where multiple areas come together, each one having its own task. So there’s eye tracking. There’s phonemic awareness. There’s sound symbol correspondence to hear the speech sounds. There’s visual memory to hold the speech pattern, eye tracking to learn kind of a motor plan for the eye for reading. All of these are critical. So if a child or an individual’s struggling with reading, it might be any combination of these. The individuals we work with may have different components.
The individuals we see that really are probably never going to get past a grade 2 or 3 level reading, unless we do this cognitive work, have all of these areas impacted. So there’s no piece that they can use to compensate for their difficulties because every single one related to reading is problematic.
If you want to see where you are in one of these cognitive functions, and you can keep it confidential, I think probably everybody in the room here has seen a cat at some point in their existence. So this is an area in the right hemisphere that holds the look of things. If you want to just close your eyes– you don’t have to do it– and see.
Can you actually see in your mind’s eye or call up on the screen an image or a picture of a cat, so whoever wants to try it. And then if you want to open up your eyes and see how you did. Some people are going to see a really, vivid, clear image of the cat. For some people it would be less clear. And some individuals are just going to see the back of their eyelids.
I often call this the refrigerator dysfunction. This is where the person just doesn’t hold the visual details of objects. So they open the fridge door, and they say, you know, where’s the mustard? Where’s the ketchup? I think you like ketchup better here. We like mustard more in Canada.
Because you don’t hold the picture of what you’re looking for, or you don’t like shopping– if somebody has trouble here– because you walk by what you’re looking for multiple times before you just recognize, OK, yeah, that’s the Cheerios or whatever it is.
You miss details. This will be the person that their wife maybe goes and gets a make over and they don’t notice that something is different, because they’re not holding the visual look of what was there before and comparing it to what’s there now.
If someone’s strong here, they’ll navigate by landmarks. They’ll go someplace once and they’ll remember vividly what it looks like and where they have to turn or they’re really good with visual imagery.
I worked with a student who was studying to be an illustrator in Canada, and she had this difficulty– not massively but enough that when she would draw a cat, she’d leave off the whiskers. Or when she’d draw a coat, she’d leave off the buttons. And that was kind of a problem if you’re going to be an Illustrator because you need to get the details down. So actually she was one of the first people I created this exercise for, and we worked on it. She improved this function. And now she’s won awards in Canada for her illustrations. So she doesn’t miss details anymore.
One person I worked with shared with me that she really hated to meditate. She had this difficulty. And I mean, she could do breathing meditation, but she couldn’t do visual imagery meditation. So someone would tell her to close her eyes and go to her happy place, well, she just saw a black screen. So it definitely doesn’t necessarily impact the person in school , per se, in academic learning but definitely in life.
If people know Oliver Sacks’s book, “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.” That’s this cognitive function. I have worked with some people that have had traumatic brain injury. And one of the students I work with here had massive right hemisphere damage. He’d been hit by a truck when he was 12, and I saw him when he was in his early 30s. And the first day he came into my school, he tried to exit through a filing cabinet because it was rectangular. It had a handle. To him, it looked like a door. We worked on this.
And what was so amazing, not only could he eventually recognize objects and landmarks, but he developed a visual sense of humor because the whole visual world became alive for him, and he could see irony.
This area is also related to face blindness and face recognition.
So somebody that has a difficulty here, if they see somebody in context, they see their neighbor on the porch in the front house, they’ll know who that person is. Five minutes later, they’ll see that person in the grocery store, no idea who they are. I have a program that addresses that.
These people often get labeled as rude or standoffish, and that isn’t the case. They just don’t recognize the person. A good friend of mine had this difficulty, and we worked on it. She was a reporter at the Toronto Star, which is the second largest newspaper in Toronto. And for 20 years, she rode the elevator up and down up and down. She had no idea every day that she went into that elevator– did she know anybody on that elevator?
So she said she had two options– one to just assume she knew nobody. And if she offended somebody, so be it, or pretend she knew everybody. And if she got labeled as being overly friendly, so that was the option she chose.
But at one point she got accused of being prejudicial. A friend said to her, you know, oh, Linda, you think all brown people look alike. And Linda said to her actually, it’s much worse than that. All people look alike.
But because she didn’t recognize people and make that discrimination, somebody interpreted her behavior as being prejudiced, which was not accurate.
So that’s this function. This is the same part of the brain but now in the left hemisphere. Some one is holding the look of the thing, which is in your right hemisphere. This is holding the symbol pattern. So, again, if you want to just think of the word “cat,” so the three letters, and if you want to try it, you can close your eyes. And can you conjure up those three letters on the blackboard? And again, some people see it really crisply. Some people it will be kind of fuzzy. And a lot of the students that we work with don’t see anything. They can’t hold the visual look of a word. Some researchers call this the brain’s letter box or visual word formary.
I call it symbol recognition.
It’s critical for spelling, for word recognition, even learning visual symbol templates like math formulas, chemical equations.
We know that you can just learn them visually. If somebody has this difficulty, they don’t.
I’ll give you an example of the exercise that we use for this area. For every single one of the 19 functions, we have very different exercises because we’re targeting very different functions. And this language that the student is looking at is Amharic from Ethiopia. And often people say, well, you know, Nick is struggling with reading English. Why are you giving him Amharic? The concept is that we don’t want the child or the individual to compensate for the difficulty. If we used English letters, they could put sound to. They could put meaning to it. If we use Amharic or Burmese or Sinhalese or Telugu, they can’t put sound to it. They can’t put meaning to it because they don’t know this language.
So the idea of any of the exercises, we’re trying to go in and target that differentiated stimulation right to the area, removing any possibility of compensation.
Now you can never fully remove compensation because the brain doesn’t work that way. So the student goes through a whole process. There’s thousands of levels in each of the exercises. And by the end of this exercise, they’re holding eight Chinese characters in their mind’s eye.
After that, English actually looks pretty easy.
But again, it’s not that we’re teaching a skill. We’re changing the brain’s capacity to hold simple patterns. So what you see changes with this is word recognition, spelling, visual matching, visual tracking, anything related to learning visual symbol patterns.
If anybody is interested, we have a number of outcome studies on our website, which is arrowsmithschool.org.
We’ve had studies done in different schools, different researchers, different research designs, all looking at outcomes, so looking at outcomes on academic measures, looking at outcomes in schools with rates of learning, looking at outcomes on cognitive measures. They’re all summarized on the website , so I’m not going to spend a lot of time on those because you can look at it.
But this was a study done at the University of Calgary, looking at academic changes.
The one I really like– this was done in the Toronto Catholic District School Board, obviously in Toronto. And it is a publicly funded board. We know that students with learning difficulties aren’t learning a year for a year. These students were learning about 2/3 of a year per year because they fall further and further behind because they’re struggling with their difficulties. We took this group of students. I think there were 60 students , and we put them half a day doing cognitive exercises.
They’re actually getting less curriculum than they were getting the previous several years where they were learning 2/3 of a year per year. We’re reducing their curriculum exposure by half . And what we found a year after the intervention, they were doubling and tripling their rate of learning, having had less academics, because we changed the brain’s capacity to learn.
Again, I keep saying this over and over again. but this is the power of the brain.
You change the capacity of it to learn, the learning just starts to go forward even when it had less exposure. These students could have sat in those English classes and those math classes for year after year after year, and they were still going to be learning at 2/3 of a year per year. It needed the cognitive intervention to shift that.
And then we’ve looked at cognitive measures. Again, this was another study done at the University of Calgary in the BrainGain Lab, seeing changes on memory, auditory processing, fluid reasoning as a result of the students working on these cognitive exercises.
What’s most exciting is the research studies that we started the last year, year and a half, two years ago, imaging research.
My hypothesis all the way through this work has been it’s the brain that’s changing. It made sense. That was the inference I made when I started this work, but I didn’t have access to this kind of research to do imaging. It’s actually quite expensive. So we have a researcher at the University of British Columbia just north of here in Vancouver, Dr. Laura Boyd and at the University of Southern Illinois, Dr. Greg Rose.
We’re doing similar studies looking at students with learning difficulties and the intervention. And we’re seeing very similar results, which hopefully within the next year will be published in peer reviewed journals.
We had to adapt the reasoning exercise for the scanner, because if you’ve ever been an fMRI, you can barely move. You have to lie. But what I wanted the researcher to do was scan the students prior to intervention and scan them three months in. Because what we see with students all around the world in this program is at about the two to three-month mark, they start to experience cognitive change . They start to be able to do things they couldn’t do before. And parents start to notice that. Teachers start to notice that.
People around them start to notice that.
So I wanted to see, was something actually happening in the brain at the three month mark? We can see a time point zero, with the reasoning exercise, the brain is processing quite inefficiently. It’s taking up a lot of real estate to do that activity. And again, this is very preliminary data, and we’ve got more data. We’ve got, I think, 10-month data now that’s being analyzed. But what we were seeing at three months, much more efficient processing, less real estate taken up to do that reasoning activity as a result of the intervention.
Another thing that we’re finding in this preliminary data is if we look at the first– you take the time activity at one, time activity at two, subtract the two, and see, is there something different between the two time points that’s consistent?
What we’re seeing is the insula is changing. It’s that little area in the bottom slide that’s kind of lit up on the left hand side all the way across in all the students doing the reasoning exercise. It makes sense, because one of the jobs of the insula is to attach meaning to things. It’s to process information and make sense out of it, which is what I had difficulty with and what that exercise shifted for me.
What is also really positive is we’re seeing a change in the prefrontal cortex, the front parts of the brain.
Here you can see a time point zero. There’s very little prefrontal cortex activation. And here at three months, significant– this is the most important part of our brain. This is the part that you probably use every day in your job. This is thinking, problem solving, strategizing. It’s analyzing a situation. You’ve got a problem in front of you to solve, and what happens is this is the part of the brain that activates first to start to call in resources of how am I going to solve that problem? What am I going to do? And then as you’re trying to solve the problem, this is the area that allows you to reflect on the results.
So, you know, this isn’t working here, what do I have to do? How do I have to modify it? It’s that constant feedback loop as you’re solving a problem. We know students with learning difficulties struggle with that, and that’s what we’re seeing at the zero time point is they’re not using that part of the brain very efficiently or effectively. At time point three, they’re starting to use that. And that’s what we see behaviorally.
We see these students become better problem solvers, better executive functioning .
It’s really exciting that we’re seeing the behavior, and now we’re actually seeing the most important part of the brain shifting.
We’re also doing another study at UBC, with this researcher, working with people traumatic brain injury. We’re just finishing nine months of data collection. These are individuals that were in car accidents, pretty significant trauma. A lot of them had been in comas. We got them several years after the traumatic event, which means any spontaneous remission would happen.
My work is designed for people with learning difficulties, but over the years, we had people come in– because the brain is the brain– with traumatic injury and we saw the results. So we thought, let’s study this. You can’t open the newspaper now without reading about concussion injuries, even blast injuries, people coming back from the various war situations. And what we’re finding, the research actually was just presented last week in the Netherlands. The researchers are really excited. They’ve got the three-month data analyzed. They’re just starting to analyze the six-month data. The end of March will be the nine month data. So by July, we should have publications .
The research has just been accepted in “The Journal for the Frontiers of Neuroscience.”
We’re seeing changes in connectivity, the same similar kinds of changes that we’re seeing in the students with learning difficulties, so change in connectivity in the brain. Some change in myelin which is, again, that connectivity, and we’re seeing change in what’s called fluid cognition. So the first kind of striped section are the people with a traumatic brain injury, prior to intervention. The blue are just normal students or individuals without traumatic brain injury. And the red, in the middle, is where they are three months after. So you can see they’re starting, and it’s a significant change starting to move up to normal.
Why is fluid cognition important? This is that thinking, problem solving, being able to step into a situation, figure it out, and operate in that situation critical for life. We’re seeing changes in other measures. I’m very excited because you know the work can now be a benefit for people not just with learning difficulties but with people with traumatic injury.
What are some of the areas like auditory memory?
This is the person that goes to the grocery store, like you send them out– can you buy me three things? You don’t write it down. You just tell them. They come back with only one thing because they can’t hold the information, or the child that comes home and knows they have homework but kind of no idea exactly what that homework is because they can’t hold the information. And often they get labeled as being irresponsible because they don’t do what you ask them to do. And truly, if they have a difficulty here, they’re not irresponsible. They just can’t hold the information.
I know people that have Post-it notes all up around their house because they have this problem.
If they don’t have their notes or their to-do lists, they aren’t going to remember what they have to do.
Then number sense or quantity blindness, I’ve worked with a lot of people, but one that kind of stands out was a psychiatrist in Toronto. She would double book clients because she had no idea of what was 60 minutes. It wasn’t that she wanted to make more money by having two clients in the same time period, but she just struggled with that. She struggled with balancing her checkbook.
I worked with an opera singer that couldn’t do time signature in music because of this area. We addressed the cognitive function. She was able to do her musical theory exam.
You know, the individual that struggles with motor planning, this was a student that couldn’t put their thoughts down on paper. So we’ve probably met people like this. They tell you a story. It can be really elaborate. You put a pen in their hand, nothing much goes down on paper. It’s because they’ve got the thoughts and the ideational content.
There’s nothing wrong with their thoughts. It’s just the motor system that’s translating the thoughts into a motor plan for writing isn’t working properly. This was the same student 11 months later, same 10 minutes, went on for three pages. We didn’t teach him how to hand write. We changed his brain’s ability to get his thoughts down on paper.
Just really quickly, another area, this is in the right hemisphere. This is what one researcher calls cognitive Goldilocks. We’ve all met people with this difficulty. It’s where they look at a situation, nonverbal, a social situation. They take one clue or cue from that situation. They don’t look at everything going on. They make an interpretation, which isn’t the full interpretation, and then they act on that. So they get into trouble socially. They’re considered sort of inept or awkward because they haven’t read all the information and interpreted it correctly. A good negotiator has to be really strong here because they have to walk into a negotiation, and they have to do that minute by minute reading of what effect am I getting? Am I getting the situation to move in the direction I want it to move?
An example is if we look at this picture, I gave it to a 12-year-old girl who had really significant social problems. Nobody in her neighborhood would play with her. In fact, everybody said she lies all the time. I asked her what was happening in this picture, and she told me they were playing badminton. And I asked her why she thought that, and it’s sort of hard to see in this picture, but this woman has netting on her hat. And this is severe premature closure . She looked at the netting. It triggered an association– badminton, net, badminton. They’re playing badminton. She didn’t look at all the rest of the information . So in her non-verbal world, her social world, it wasn’t she was lying. She just misinterpreted things all the time.
And there are lots of examples.
Another girl looked at this. She was 18. And she told me they were at city hall in Toronto. And I’d been to City Hall many times, and I didn’t really think it looked quite like that. And she pointed to the rope in the foreground. And she’d been to City Hall the week before, and there was an area cordoned off with a rope. So again, that’s premature closure . She looked at one element, interpreted it, and ran with that interpretation.
In both cases, we addressed this cognitive function. The 12-year-old is now 30. She’s successful in the world. She can read nonverbal interpretation and so is the other individual.
Again, we’re not teaching them skills or rules, because there is no rule book for life. You’ve got to go into all these situations and be able to handle the situations in real time, and that’s what we’re giving the brain’s ability to do. I’m just going to cover this and then open for questions.
I work with a lot of adults in my school in Toronto and a number of the schools. Here there’s a school in Redmond, Eaton Arrowsmith Academy, that works with adults as well. And I see a lot of adults that have what I call a cognitive mismatch . This is where the demands of their job aren’t quite aligned with their cognitive profile.
If we think about that auditory memory, I worked with a pilot, an airline pilot, once. And he couldn’t hold all of the instructions from the air traffic controller. I found that a little worrisome. His strategy was to have the air traffic controller repeat the instructions over and over, but I thought, like, what if you’re flying into Chicago O’Hare or Atlanta that are really busy airports? And that air traffic controller really doesn’t have time to repeat those instructions, and he can’t remember them.
So my joke was, if I was ever flying, I wanted to know what airspace he was flying in so I didn’t fly in the same airspace.
But the better strategy was to address the problem, which we did. And now he can listen to the information once and hold it.
If we think about that object recognition, what I call the refrigerator dysfunction, I worked with the pathologist, he was in doing his residency in pathology, at a teaching hospital in the US. He had that difficulty. And he didn’t really know he had that difficulty. He was examining breast tissue. It was somebody that had had cancer, breast cancer, and she’d gone through traditional treatments. So she’d gone through chemotherapy and radiation, and now it was to see, was she in remission? And he knew how important this was, so he was really careful. He was diligent. He was looking at that slide. And he was just about to sign off that the person was in remission when his supervisor came and said, didn’t you see these cells up here? This is cancer. And it’s not that he hadn’t seen them. He hadn’t recognized them because he hadn’t held the look to match it up to that. So he knew he was in serious trouble.
He exited out of his residency program.
We worked on that cognitive function. He now will never make that mistake. But I think there are a lot of what we call human error. And some of it can be explained by these cognitive mismatches.
That kinesthetic, that problem I had, where you don’t interpret sensation or register sensation on your left side of your body, I’ve had some students that think it’s a great idea to get a motorcycle and they can’t register sensation and don’t kind of regulate their body movement and have a number of accidents on that motorcycle because it plays into that difficulty.
So, what have I learned?
Every part of the brain is critical. If anybody says you only use 10% of your brain, tell them, well, I’m not going to swear. Tell them that they’re not accurate because over the course of a day, you use every part of your brain. And if there’s something that’s not working in the way that it’s designed to work, it will have some impact. Most of us can compensate. Or we just avoid those things that are hard for us.
Obviously, a lot of the students that I work with, I mean from age 6– the oldest person I’ve worked with is 81– these are things where they pile up.
They have multiple areas that are coming together that cause difficulty and where they cannot really effectively compensate. My vision is to get this work– starting in grade 1, every child coming to school learns curriculum, which is what we all do. But what do we learn with? We learn with out brain. So part of their day is devoted to cognitive exercises, to stimulate function. And what would that do? It would mean the students now that by grade 3 or 4 would get identified, will never get identified. Because by grade 3 or 4, these problems will be addressed.
It will become a normal part of curriculum, so there’ll be no stigma.
Because there’s tremendous stigma still attached to having a learning difficulty. Students with unevenness in their profile– I worked with a student. His mechanical reasoning was at the 50th percentile, which is average. He wanted to be an architect. You need to be at the 90th percentile. I created my mechanical reasoning exercise for him, got him to the 90th percentile. He’s now been an architect for 15 years. That would get addressed in those early grades. Any child can benefit from cognitive stimulation.
When I wrote my book, I put that as my vision at the end of the book. And I was convinced I would never see that in my lifetime.
We’re in a school in South Carolina. I called my whole cohort model– the whole grade 2 class is doing two of my cognitive exercises. This is their second year, seeing really good results.
We’re just starting in a public school just north of Sydney in Australia. They’re taking their whole grade 1 class. These are just regular grade 1 kids. We’re doing that motor planning exercise.
If we go into the university in Spain, we’ll just have all the students working on that reasoning exercise.
So the vision is gradually happening, and it just has huge applications for changing the face of education. And that’s what I’m passionate about– giving children and young adults and adults a different possibility in their life, having many more doors open to them and where they can make choice of what door do I want to walk through, rather than having most doors closed and only one possibility.
Barbara Arrowsmith-Young was born with severe learning disabilities that caused teachers to label her slow or just stubborn. As a child, she read and wrote everything backward, struggled to process concepts in language, continually got lost, and was physically uncoordinated. She could make no sense of an analogue clock. Thanks in large part to her iron will, she made her way to graduate school, where she connected with research that helped her to to fix her own brain. Subsequently, she founded a world-renowned school to help people with similar issues.