The Belly of the Beast
The Woman Who Changed Her Brain
When we were asked to sell books at a lecture by Barbara Arrowsmith-Young last week I quickly volunteered to be the bookseller on site. Her book, The Woman Who Changed Her Brain, has been one of our best sellers in the last few months and like countless others I have always been fascinated and mystified by this organ that bridges the gap between body and soul.
As a young person Barbara had severe learning disabilities. She could not tell time. She could understand the word mother and the word sister but she could not comprehend what the phrase mother’s sister meant. The whole left side of her body was almost non- functioning. She was so accident-prone that her parents thought that she would never make it out of childhood. And she had severe dyslexia. As a teenager, she became suicidal. Norman Doidge, who wrote the book The Brain That Changes Itself, devoted a whole chapter to her.
Today she is the director of Arrowsmith School and Arrowsmith Program. She has schools all over Canada. Last week she received the 2012 Alumna of Honour award from the University of Guelph Alumni Association. How did she get from there to here? The seat of determination in the brain must have been very strong because slowly but surely she developed exercises that targeted and improved each of her weak areas. Just to give one example, students with learning disabilities often have very messy handwriting. Her exercise for that: have the student wear a patch on her left eye while tracing over characters she doesn't understand, like Chinese or Cyrillic script. She gave examples in the lecture of profound changes in the quality of writing that occurred over a matter of weeks.
Her research and programs have been so important and have changed lives. Many of us, or our children, suffer from shame and embarrassment because our brains have gaps. A couple of days after the lecture I bumped in to a professional who does testing for children with learning problems. She had been at the lecture, and what she really appreciated was the fact that the program was not about how to help a student compensate for their weak areas (by using a computer to write, or a calculator to add) but actually went into the belly of the beast and wrestled. The book is an invaluable guide to understanding the brain.
There is an Arrowsmith program in Guelph, housed in the Guelph Community Christian School.