We have always thought that “our brain shapes us.” When I wrote this book, I wanted to demonstrate how “we can shape our brains.”
Imagine having a brain that is capable and incapable at the same time. Growing up, I had severe learning disabilities. I lived in a world that was confusing and incomprehensible. As I was to later understand, a critical part of my brain was not working properly, the end result being that all language was experienced as foreign and my translator was broken. Finding connections between things and ideas was a challenge, and telling time, for instance, was impossible—I couldn’t grasp the relationship between the big hand and the little hand on a clock. I could not understand cause and effect, so felt buffeted by random events, not being able to see the ‘why’ of things. And this was the 1950’s and 60’s when the brain was viewed as unchangeable, so I was told I had best learn to live with my limitations. I walked around in a fog, relying on my excellent memory and my drive and determination to find an answer to what plagued me.
As a young graduate student in psychology, frustrated with the enormous expenditure of energy required to work around my problems and with very limited success, I came across the research of the great Russian neuropsychologist Alexander Luria, who studied soldiers who had suffered head wounds. Using Luria’s detailed descriptions of the functions of various brain regions, I identified 19 unique learning dysfunctions. And after reading the research of Mark Rosenzweig who demonstrated that stimulation could improve the brains of rats, I theorized that it might be possible to transform weak areas of the brain through repetitive and targeted cognitive exercises. With much reading and an intuitive understanding of the brain’s functioning from Luria’s descriptions, I invented a series of cognitive exercises to address my learning difficulties. This was in 1978, long before the concept of “neuroplasticity” was widely understood. At the time, the scientific community believed this kind of transformation was impossible, but the exercises did indeed radically improve my functioning in very specific ways. Today, this notion of brain plasticity—which I began exploring three decades ago—is established wisdom in neuroscience.
In the past decade, the idea that self-improvement can happen in the brain has caught hold and inspired new hope. Assessment measures and cognitive exercises have been developed to identify and then strengthen weak cognitive capacities that underlie a range of specific learning difficulties. From these developments and with my vision for this program to be widely available to all struggling students, the Arrowsmith Program and School was born and over the past two decades, over 100 educational organizations, both independent and publicly funded, across 8 countries, have implemented the program.
In my book The Woman Who Changed Her Brain, I combine my own personal journey with case histories from four decades as an investigator and educator, unraveling the mystery of how our brain mediates our functioning in the world. This book details the brain’s incredible ability to change and overcome learning problems and deepens our understanding of the workings of the brain and its profound impact on how we participate in the world.
My work has been and continues to be a labour of love and I am honored to share with you through this book my journey and life’s work. I sincerely hope you enjoy this book and that it will inspire you to change the way you think about the mind.