Monday, July 9, 2012

Stephanie Dowrick reads The Woman Who Changed Her Brain

 "What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow. Our life is the creation of our mind."
The Dhammapada

Canadian neuroscience pioneer and teacher, Barbara Arrowsmith-Young, is The Woman Who Changed Her Brain. She is also the woman who has helped countless other people to change their brains for the better. Or, more accurately, to identify the areas of their brains that are not functioning as well as they should and certainly could – and to do something about it.

The “something about it” consists of highly focused assessments disclosing where an individual’s particular “traffic jams in the brain” physically originate, followed by a series of targeted exercises that clearly demand an awesome level of patience and commitment. However, in story after story in this book we witness the joy and liberation that people feel when they are no longer limited by their old “deficits” or learning disabilities, and the emotional agonies and often self-loathing that so often accompanied them.

This is exciting and radical reading. The deficits or learning disabilities  Arrowsmith-Young describes go way beyond the best known. Those are probably in the crucial areas of writing, reading and spelling. When those areas of the brain don’t “work” as they should, people can quickly be labelled as stupid, even when they are highly intelligent and making superhuman efforts.

And there's more. For example, we learn here of kind, thoughtful people who literally cannot identify or memorise faces, even of those they know well. Others cannot judge when it is safe to cross a road, or what it might mean to conjure up a mental image or even a fairly reliable memory, or what “before” and “after” actually signify.

Reading this book, I quickly understood some of my own deficits better: why – like countless others – my own abilities and even possibilities have been markedly uneven. As a little child I was quickly able to learn and do some things, yet struggled and continue to struggle in other areas. (Reading and writing were always fine; maths, far less so; technical instruction booklets a nightmare; spatial and 3-dimensional problems, hopeless.)

But “hopeless” is not a word in Arrowsmith-Young’s lexicon, although she was painfully, horribly familiar with it for many years.  The memoir aspects of this book are deeply moving and the author emerges as a woman of great courage as well as a highly driven (and motivating) curiosity. However, she’s a reticent writer and that’s not where she wants readers to linger.

Her emphasis is on the discoveries she has made, continues to make, and wants to share. These are discoveries not just about overcoming neurological deficits but also, and even more remarkably, about how the brain itself functions (or fails to).

Almost the best of this good news is that once the brain is changed for the better, it stays changed. You don’t slide back to the same level of disability. In fact, positive changes increase with time. What was once confusing is no longer confusing. “The changed brain stays changed.”

Our knowledge of the brain is still in infancy stages. Norman Doidge, author of the arguably even more remarkable book, The Brain that Changes Itself, reminds us in his glowing Foreword that it’s only 30 years since neuroscience (and those of us amateurs hanging out for greater insights) discovered that the brain is plastic, can change - and can be “changed”.  Doidge describes Arrowsmith, when he first met her, as a “bold, ingenious, tormented, driven, deeply empathic pioneer”. He also regrets how few children and adults have access to effective programs for disabilities that can be entirely overcome. (So much of what passes for learning disability support simply adds significant stress and brings poor results.)

Because conventional remedial help even for the best-known learning difficulties is so patchy and often so ineffective, my greatest and perhaps only real reservation about the book is that the exercises that allow for these brilliant changes are sketchily described. I understand this, because without a careful assessment, self-prescribing could be a waste of time and result in a dashing of hopes. Nonetheless, I would have welcomed a more precise picture than is given.

For those who want to pursue the Arrowsmith principles, a visit to one of her Canadian schools may be a choice. Usefully, Doidge in his Foreword also mentions Howard Eaton’s apparently more practical book, Brain School. (In a separate post below, I list some other worthwhile “brain” books, including Doidge’s own.)

Most of us would probably agree that how we think, what we choose to think about and where we give our attention are vital to questions of choice and of consciousness. “With our thoughts we make the world,” are words from 2600 years ago, recorded in the Buddhist classic text, The Dhammapada.

The content of our thinking – and our self- and other perceptions - lead us directly to the most central issues of meaning, purpose and identity. Yet it seems that as long as our perceptions and choices are limited by our neurophysiology - and even by a limited understanding of the brain that generates them - good will and insight cannot be fully realised.

Dr Stephanie Dowrick is a trained psychotherapist as well as a writer and retreat leader. She is the founder of the Universal Heart Network and co-host of the Universal Heart Book Club.

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1 comment:

  1. This is such a widely burgeoning area of research, and turning into a publishing craze, where some writers are just pumping out rather formulaic 'guides'. I found it very helfpul to read such a subtly considered account of a book that seems to be more genuinely born of long term exploration and research. I think it's especially helpful to be reminded of the parallels with Buddhist and other forms of meditation tradition in which watching your thoughts becomes central to the practice.