How Barbara Arrowsmith Young is Curing Learning Disabilities

Posted on Posted in Growth, Heroes


“Today I feel a million miles distant from the frustration and anxiety of that young child, that adolescent, that young woman who was always guessing at meaning. I cannot describe the joy and excitement of being able to really communicate with family, friends, and colleagues, of being able to respond to what they are actually saying in the moment.” (1)

Barbara Arrowsmith Young had severe learning disabilities; she was called “retarded.” Then she designed her own treatment that cured her conditions and, in the process, transformed the way we think about learning disabilities (2).

When Barbara was a child, adolescent and young woman, she suffered from a range of mental impairments. She had:

  • Trouble pronouncing words
  • A limited capacity for spatial reasoning, resulting in an inability to form mental maps in order to retrace her steps or remember where she left something
  • Weak kinesthetic perception which meant she could not accurately sense where her body was in space
  • A narrow span of vision that allowed her to only see a few words at a time while reading
  • Most significantly, an inability to understand the relationship between symbols, throwing grammar, math concepts, logic and cause and effect out the window

Her first grade teacher told her parents she “had ‘a mental block’ and [she] wouldn’t ever learn the way others did.” She described her experience this way: “I live in a fog, and the world is no more solid than cotton candy” (2).

Foreshadowing the role neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to change throughout our lives, would play in her later years, Barbara’s brain built an incredible capacity for memory as it compensated for her weaknesses; her memory tested in the 99th percentile. As a result, she was able to make it through to graduate school, but with wild fluctuations in her grades. On fact-based tests, she could easily score 100, but when an exam required understanding relationships, she would be lucky to get any right. She also had to work incredibly hard. In college and graduate school, she’d read research papers as many as 20 times in order to have a hope of understanding what other students could in one reading. 

While her dogged approach to education didn’t do much for her sleep schedule – she often slept just 4 hours a night – it did bring her into contact with research about the brain and learning. While in graduate school, she discovered two works that changed her life. In Aleksandr Luria’s The Man with a Shattered World, she found an account of a soldier whose head injury left him with the same symbolic understanding deficits from which she suffered. In other words, her disability had a physical location in her brain. Around the time that she first read Luria, she came across the work of Mark Rosenzweig, who had demonstrated neuroplasticity in rats in the early 1960s. His work showed that rats raised in enriched environments grew larger and more active brains (4). For Barbara, it meant the deficient area of her brain could grow with the right exercise. 

Barbara began designing trainings for her deficiencies around two core principles. First, she had to find exercises that would directly target the troubled areas. Her life and education to that point clearly hadn’t done this; she had been compensating for her weaknesses with her impressive memory, rather than addressing them directly. Second, the level of difficulty had to be appropriately calibrated to be just beyond her comfort zone; too easy or too difficult would not allow the brain to effectively engage with the task (1)

She designed an exercise of reading analog clocks, something she was unable to do as a result of her symbolic understanding deficit. She simply couldn’t make the connection between the position of the hands and the time of day. She created a set of flashcards with clock faces on one side and the time written on the back. She painstakingly worked through them until she had built the ability to read them in her previously deficient brain. Then she increased the difficulty by adding additional hands – for seconds, then sixtieths of a second – in the same way that a weight lifter adds weights as he becomes stronger. After weeks of diligent practice, she found that not only could she tell time quicker than most people, but grammar, logic and mathematical concepts began making sense as well. She had been directly building the once dormant neural pathways that relate symbols to concepts. The fog that had dominated her life was lifting.

Barbara went on to design trainings for her other deficits and saw similar “miraculous” improvements. The approach she had stumbled upon became the basis for training at the Arrowsmith School she subsequently founded to help others: “cognitive exercises do not teach content or skill in, say, mathematics; the aim is to forge new neural pathways in the brain so that later, when math is taught, number concepts actually make sense” (2). Whereas previously the education system had focused exclusively on content, Barbara had devised a way to train mental capacity in order to enable the understanding of content. She founded the Arrowsmith School in 1978 and her methods have enabled similar life-changing improvements for thousands of people. 

Barbara Arrowsmith Young is an early practitioner of neuroplasticity based trainings to enable people to overcome their supposed inborn weaknesses. In addition to providing incredible hope to people who suffer from learning disabilities (see here for a list of learning dysfunctions currently addressed), the Arrowsmith School and Arrowsmith Programs shatter our certainty of the limitations we often place on ourselves. Most of us believe that similar, radical physical changes are possible. But we are starting to see this type of “miraculous” limitation busting work being done in other fields as well: from treating age-related cognitive declines (see: BrainHQ for scientifically validated exercises) to emotional dysfunctions like obsessive compulsive disorder (see the work of Jeffery M. Schwartz).

Our physical, mental and emotional limitations are not fixed and, with the right approach, we all have the ability to substantially raise the bar, regardless of our starting point.

For consideration: What limitations do you have that affect the quality of your life? Could neuroplasticity provide a solution? 

Related posts:


Recommended Books

(1) Barbara Arrowsmith Young, The Woman Who Changed Her Brain: How I Left My Learning Disability Behind and Other Stories of Cognitive Transformation

(2) Norman Doidge, The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science

(3) A. Luria, The Man with a Shattered World: The History of a Brain Wound

(4) M. Rosenzweig, et al, “Effects of environmental complexity and training on brain chemistry and anatomy: A replication and extension,” Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology, Vol 55(4), Aug 1962, 429-437

Brain HQ: Scientifically validated cognitive exercises to address Attention, Brain Speed, Memory, People Skills, Intelligence, Navigation

Barbara Arrowsmith Young, TED Talk, “The Woman Who Changed Her Brain.”

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