The extraordinary story of Barbara Arrowsmith Young was featured in chapter 2 of Norman Doidge’s fascinating book The Brain that Changes Itself. Its the tale of a woman born with severe deficits in certain areas of brain function (her own mother did not think she would live past the age of three) coupled with mental gifts in other areas. It was precisely because she had these two extremes that she was able to gain the insight needed to heal her own brain using exercises based on the concept of brain plasticity. Norman Doidge published several versions of this story in various media in 2001. Below is from an edited version published in the Canadian Reader’s Digest:
One hundred trillion connections make up the human brain—highways still mostly unmapped. Those who do the mapping are often scientists whose brains are extraordinary, working on those whose brains are damaged. Rarely is the person who makes a discovery the one with the defect. Barbara Arrowsmith Young is an exception.
She was born with a devastating set of learning disabilities, side by side with extraordinary gifts and a resolve that, after years of work, allowed her to invent the treatment that transformed her. Today she runs the Arrowsmith School in Toronto, where her revolutionary approach is changing the lives of students with similar disabilities.
Lost in Space
Born in Toronto in 1951 and raised in Peterborough, Ont., Barbara had areas of brilliance as a child. Her auditory and visual memories were extraordinary. Her frontal lobes were exceptionally developed, giving her a driven, dogged quality. But her brain was “asymmetrical,” meaning these parts coexisted with areas of retardation.
She had a confusing array of cognitive problems. She had trouble pronouncing words. She had no capacity for spatial reasoning, which allows one to construct a pathway of movements internally before executing them. It’s important for a baby crawling or a hockey player planning his moves, but it is also necessary for organizing one’s desk or remembering where one has placed one’s keys. With no mental map of things in space, Barbara lost things all the time. Out of sight was literally out of mind, so she had to keep everything she was playing or working with in front of her, and keep her closets and dressers open. Outside, she was always getting lost.
She also had a kinesthetic problem: difficulty recognizing objects by touch and knowing where her body or limbs were. She literally couldn’t tell her left from her right. She couldn’t hold a cup of juice in her left hand without spilling it. She frequently tripped or stumbled.”