A Conversation with Barbara Arrowsmith Young

A Conversation with Barbara Arrowsmith Young

Wed, 01/09/2013 - 9:00pm

Photo Credit: Young Street Media

Barbara Arrowsmith Young shares how she managed to completely overcome her severe learning disabilities by changing her own brain in A Conversation with Barbara Arrowsmith Young, airing Wednesday, January 9 at 9 p.m. and again on Sunday, January 13, 2013 at 9 p.m. on AM 1370/FM-HD91.5-2.

A Conversation with Barbara Arrowsmith Young is part of Dialogue on Disability: The Herman & Margaret Schwartz Community Series, a partnership between WXXI and Al Sigl Community of Agencies. The week-long programming intiative is designed to encourage community dialogue about the abilities of people with physical and intellectual disabilities, and the importance of inclusion. Dialogue on Disability runs January 7-14, 2013. To learn more, visit WXXI.org/dod.

To hear this radio program online, click here.

Barbara was born into a world that constantly bewildered her. While other kids around her could talk and converse easily, she struggled to attach meaning to everyday words and phrases. Simple statements like ‘the cat is black’ were okay, but more complex sentences, such as ‘the cat is under the table’, baffled her. When told by a teacher that she had a ‘mental block’, Barbara thought she must literally have some kind of wooden block lodged in her head.

Like many people with language disabilities, Barbara developed some powerful work-arounds, including a powerful auditory recall; she would recall whole slabs of conversation with word perfect accuracy, so she could later replay the sentences over and over again in her mind like a tape recorder, until she could wring some meaning from it.  

At school it was assumed Barbara was merely lazy and willful, but in fact she was giving over every spare moment to study and memorization, in a desperate attempt to fit in. So her test results would bump around near zero, but occasionally she would rocket right up to the top.  She could memorize anything... but could understand so little of it without intense study.

Barbara's persistence got her into college, and one day in the library she stumbled across the work of Alexander Luria, a Russian neuro-psychologist. Luria was writing about a soldier who had been shot in the head in the battle of Smolensk. Barbara recognized that this brain-damaged soldier had struggled with exactly the same difficulties she had and she realized that her problems must be caused by a malfunctioning part of her brain.

So she tried to fix the damage herself: she created brain stimulation exercises that would work on the areas of her brain that weren't functioning. She drew clockfaces on cards with the correct time written on the back. As she got faster and faster at reading the time, she began to experience a profound mental exhaustion and she concluded that something must be working. And then, at last, she began to read and comprehend at the same time.

It was like having all the lights in her head switched on for the first time. The success of Barbara’s exercises support the ideas behind the emerging science of neuroplasticity, which suggests that the brain is much more changeable than was previously thought, and that malfunctioning parts of the brain can be re-wired. Barbara founded the Arrowsmith School in Canada which teaches cognitive exercises to other people with similar learning disabilities.

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