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Barbara Arrowsmith: Building herself a better brain: Summary

This is an example of using a summary to understand and remember material.

This information is taken from Norman Doidge’s wonderful book (highly recommended), The Brain that Changes Itself, 2007 pages 27-37. In addition to learning an interesting and significant story of neuroplasticity, it can inspire readers to believe they can change their own brains by practicing strategies that will help you improve.

Building herself a better brain

Barbara Arrowsmith was born with an asymmetrical body (the two sides were different). Her right leg was longer than left leg, the right side of body was larger than her left side, and her spine twisted.  Her left arm Her left eye, was also weaker, but she had serious problems with both eyes. They had a narrow range of vision, allowing her to see only a few letters at a time.

She later learned that even her brain was asymmetrical: some parts were well-developed; some poorly developed. Her well-developed frontal lobes made it possible for her to have the determination to keep trying. While her auditory and visual memory were excellent, she had extremely poor spatial and kinesthetic memory. Her lack of kinesthetic sense meant that, when holding a cup in left hand, she spilled contents. She was clumsy, often tripping and stumbling. Her poor spatial sense meant she often bumped into things, she frequently lost things, and she often got lost.

These problems created even more serious learning problems. She had difficulty pronouncing words. She was Dyslexic, and also would read and write from right to left. She couldn’t understand relationship between symbols and this led to  poor grammar and problems in math.  She could memorize math facts but could not understand concepts. She could hear or read the words in a sentence but had problems putting them together in a meaningful way.  She could not understand cause and effect .She could not read a clock.

We might wonder how, with so many problems she could make passing grades .In the 1950s, in small town in Canada, nobody had any understanding of learning disabilities.  Barbara’s family expected to hide her problems because it was embarrassing. First, her family members were all high achievers and expected each child to succeed. Her mother’s attitude was “if you have a problem, fix it.”

But Barbara had the advantage of being unusually able to memorize. If tested on facts, she often made scores of 100; If tested on concepts, she always failed. To keep up, Barbara spent all spare time memorizing information.

As you might expect, Barbara also had social problems.  She had difficulty understanding conversation; she forgot the first words before hearing the ends of sentences. Movies made no sense until she reviewed them mentally over and over. She couldn’t understand by listening, who was and wasn’t trustworthy. All this meant it was hard for her to make friends and she was only able to have one relationship at a time .

As one would expect, she  was often depressed, constantly experiencing uncertainty and doubt. He motto was “I don’t get it.”  She said she felt like the world was a fog.

In spite of these problems, she persisted and went to college where she studied child development, hoping to understand herself better. In a child development lab, the teachers noticed Barbara’s “remarkable ability” to pick up visual cues. She was invited to teach a class. But reading continued to be a problem. She needed to read assignments more than 20 times to get some understanding of the material.

It is hard to believe, but Barbara Arrowsmith continued on to graduate school where she studied Education.  Here, several things changed her life.  First, she met Joshua Cohen, and later married him. Joshua was another learning-disabled graduate student. He ran clinic for learning-disabled students, teaching them compensation methods.  Joshua tried to help Barbara to use compensation methods but she found them too time-consuming . She studied Joshua’s students and discovered they were not improving.

Another significant moment came when Joshua read work by Aleksandr Luria and suggested that Barbara read it. Luria writes about soldier with shrapnel wound in brain. Barbara was especially excited to soldier’s learning problems, after he was wounded were very similar to her own problems. He had even said that the world was like fog. Luria’s studies of the soldier’s brain damage meant that Barbara now knew the cause of her problems – the part of her brain affected.

The next significant event occurred as Barbara read an article by Mark Rosenzweig.          It described research with rats in various environments. They had discovered that rats in enriched environments developed heavier brains with a greater blood supply. This was an early step toward the idea of Neuroplasticity, that our brains can be changed.

Barbara began to realize that, if she exercised the weaker parts of her brain, these parts could grow stronger.  She began by developing flash cards to help her read the time on a clock and spent many hours a day practicing.  Eventually she learned to tell time and discovered something amazing. The part of the brain she had changed was apparently related to many of her problems. In addition to learning to tell time, her grammar, math, and logic and also improved.

After graduate school and marriage, she and Joshua worked together to develop many new brain exercises. She began the Arrowsmith School, a place where adults and children could School use the exercises they had developed. The school always does extensive testing first to locate the parts of the brain that are causing the problems. By using the appropriate brain exercises, the students show amazing improvement

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You may want to compare this summary to the outline of the same material.

Build Brain Outline

Reading both the outline and the summary may help you decide which you find most helpful. Personally, I find the outline most helpful for remembering the details but writing the summary more helpful to prepare for an essay question.  You might want to use both of them for different kinds of material.

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