by Min-Zhui Lee
Barbara Arrowsmith-Young’s Year 1 teacher told her that she had a wooden cube for a head and strapped her as punishment for her inability to keep up with the class. She is now an internationally recognised pioneer in cognitive education.
The author of The Woman Who Changed Her Brain, she talked to television news presenter Anton Enus at the Sydney Writer’s Festival. Their conversation gave insight into her journey of mental transformation: from a child with severe learning difficulties to an adult whose self-invented Arrowsmith Program has helped thousands of children overcome their learning disorders.
Born in Canada in 1951, Ms Arrowsmith-Young struggled with spatial recognition, relational concepts and, most debilitating of all, language.
“I couldn’t think my way into three-dimensional space. If I closed a drawer, whatever was in that drawer no longer existed for me,” she said. “I couldn’t tell time because I couldn’t grasp the relationship between the hour hand and minute hand. But what was more profound was that I couldn’t attach meaning to language. It was very isolating.”
The term “learning disability” was not coined until the 1960s, so at a young age she was diagnosed with a mental block.
“As a child I thought I was really unintelligent — the label I gave myself was ‘stupid’. It wasn’t a very happy existence growing up.”
However, Ms Arrowsmith-Young had an “almost-photographic” memory. She passed high school exams by memorising lessons and notes, and completed her undergraduate degree on four hours sleep and 20 hours study a day.
Yet, nothing helped her self-esteem. “It felt like for a lot of my life, I was living a lie, papering over difficulties. A lot of shame goes along with that.”
It was only in graduate school when the transformation began; it was the day Ms Arrowsmith-Young came across a book called The Man with the Shattered World. It recounted the mental torment of a Russian army lieutenant after he was shot in the head at the Battle of Smolensk.
“I didn’t have a bullet hole in my skull, but when I read the description of what he could no longer do, it was like reading my life on a page. I wasn’t alone. It was very exhilarating.”
At around the same time, scientists at the University of Berkeley found that rats’ brains developed physiologically after stimulation.
This capacity of nerve cells to change is called neuroplasticity. “It’s a physical regeneration, building neural pathways. If there are more dendrites — the branches at the end of neurones — there are more connections, and more efficient neurotransmission,” Ms Arrowsmith-Young explained.
Inspired, she developed her first exercise to improve her mind. “I drilled myself mercilessly on drawing clocks, reading clocks, trying to understand them until eventually something clicked. I added the second hand to make it more complex — and light bulbs started going off.”
With time and persistence, her disabilities disappeared.
Ms Arrowsmith-Young created similar exercises for children with learning deficits and founded the Arrowsmith School in Toronto in 1980.
“I felt that if I could make a difference in one child’s life and they didn’t have to go through the struggle that I went through, then that would be worthwhile,” she said.
At first, it was a tough climate for her revolutionary program as it was “ground-breaking” and costly — there were “a lot of macaroni and cheese dinners”.
But three decades later, there are now two Arrowsmith institutes, and her Arrowsmith philosophy and methods are used at schools all over North America.
She has plans to bring the program to Australia by 2014.