Neuroplasticity, learning disabilities and domestic abuse
I recently read The Woman Who Changed Her Brain, a book by Barbara Arrowsmith-Young who founded Arrowsmith, a secular program for students with learning disabilities.
Barbara Arrowsmith-Young’s TEDx talk, ‘The Woman Who Changed Her Brain’, can be viewed here.
Here is the blurb from the back cover of The Woman Who Changed her Brain: And Other Inspiring Stories of Pioneering Brain Transformation by Barbara Arrowsmith-Young (Free Press, 2012). barbaraarrowsmithyoung.com. Copyright © 2012 Barbara Arrowsmith Young. With permission of the author.
Barbara Arrowsmith-Young was born with severe learning disabilities that caused teachers to label her slow, stubborn—or worse. As a child, she read and wrote everything backward, struggled to process concepts in language, continually got lost, and was physically uncoordinated. She could make no sense of an analogue clock. But by relying on her formidable memory and iron will, she made her way to graduate school, where she chanced upon research that inspired her to invent cognitive exercises to “fix” her own brain. The Woman Who Changed Her Brain interweaves her personal tale with riveting case histories from her more than thirty years of working with both children and adults.
Recent discoveries in neuroscience have conclusively demonstrated that, by engaging in certain mental tasks or activities, we actually change the structure of our brains—from the cells themselves to the connections between cells. The capability of nerve cells to change is known as neuroplasticity, and Arrowsmith-Young has been putting it into practice for decades. With great inventiveness, after combining two lines of research, Barbara developed unusual cognitive calisthenics that radically increased the functioning of her weakened brain areas to normal and, in some areas, even above-normal levels. She drew on her intellectual strengths to determine what types of drills were required to target the specific nature of her learning problems, and she managed to conquer her cognitive deficits. Starting in the late 1970s, she has continued to expand and refine these exercises, which have benefited thousands of individuals. Barbara founded Arrowsmith School in Toronto in 1980 and then the Arrowsmith Program to train teachers and to implement this highly effective methodology in schools all over North America.
Her work is revealed as one of the first examples of neuroplasticity’s extensive and practical application. The idea that self-improvement can happen in the brain has now caught fire.
The Woman Who Changed Her Brain powerfully illustrates how the lives of children and adults struggling with learning disorders can be dramatically transformed.
Most of the book deals with learning disabilities and how Arrowsmith-Young identified and then devised various cognitive exercises to eradicate them. However, there are a couple of passages our readers will find particularly pertinent to domestic abuse. The first passage talks about trauma and neuroplasticity (pp 13-14).
Alain Brunet, an associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry at McGill University in Montreal, is using the malleability of the human brain to treat people suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder. These are victims, for example, of rape, child abuse, car accidents, and hostage taking for whom the event remains very much alive in their minds. Brunet is reporting success using a blend of pharmacology and neuroplasticity.
These patients are first given medication to dampen the emotion associated with these memories and then asked to repeatedly recall the event. These men and women are rewiring their brains, disconnecting the circuitry linking the memory of the event to the arousal of their own threat systems. This process allows each person to file the memory in a new folder in the brain, not in the virtual present but in its rightful place – in the actual past. This is the principle of neuroplasticity in action: neurons that fire apart, wire apart. These new treatments for trauma usefully exploit this fact: when you remember a traumatic event, the network for that memory enters a more malleable state, and the treatment proceeds in that heightened neuroplastic milieu.
The second excerpt I’d like to share with you is where Barbara Arrowsmith-Young talks about her own marriage (pp 188-9):
My marriage had endured fourteen years, and when it ended, so did a seventeen-year relationship that had begun in the spring of 1977. I was not the same person at the end of that period as I was at the beginning.
During the first years with Joshua, my reasoning deficits left me particularly vulnerable to manipulation because I could never be certain what people meant. With some people, there was surface meaning and then there was the true agenda. I could not tell the difference.
In the wake of the cognitive exercises, I had to learn for the first time how to use a brain capacity I had never possessed. Like someone gaining sight after many years of blindness, I found the transition exceedingly difficult. The hallmark of the symbol relations deficit is an abiding sense of uncertainty. After twenty-six years of uncertainty and of missing the nuance in people’s communication, it was difficult to finally trust my understanding. And the emotional turmoil, the low self-esteem that had developed over my first three decades, lived on during my time with Joshua.
I used to think naively that once one’s cognitive deficits were addressed and the learning capacity enhanced, the emotional healing would happen spontaneously. My own experiences and that of people I have worked with suggest otherwise.
The dynamics that govern abusive relationships are complex, and I do not mean to diminish all the factors that contribute. My intention here is to underline the role that learning disabilities can play in this troubled dynamic.
In 1995, trying to make sense of my time with Joshua, I wrote:
The increase in the amplitude of his abuse, all done so gradually, so subtly I was unaware of being caged, until he controlled all outside contacts. My perceptions subtly manipulated by his will. My vision circumscribed by his mind. My world defined by him. A form of agnosia, perceiving sensations but being unable to interpret them without his overlay. The agonist binding to the receptor, fitting together, bound, the pathology incomplete without the two interlocking. Like a chemical reaction, setting off a chain of events no longer under conscious control.
If I had set out to write a story about the intersection between the nature of specific learning disabilities, the vulnerability this creates and the impact all this has on one’s emotional well-being, I don’t think I could have done a better job than describing my own life. Joshua knew my cognitive limitations intimately, and his barbs would deepen my already well-developed sense of inadequacy:
“Why are you so stupid?” he would say.
“Why don’t you understand? It is so obvious.”
“With your lousy sense of direction, it’s a wonder you ever get anywhere.”
“You are so clumsy; I can’t trust you with anything.”
A litany of criticism, each based in a measure of truth. My habitual response was to try harder to get it right. Early on, I had learned to suppress my pain, deny my emotions, and redouble my effort. As Zazetsky [a man who suffered brain damage in a war injury] so aptly said, “I’ll fight on.” This was my mantra. Years later, a researcher who interviewed me likened my world to amygdala hell. The amygdala is the brain’s threat detector, readying one for flight or fight, and mine was on constant high alert.
Where my learning disability had, in its own particular way, closed me off from the world, now my relationship with my husband did. Who I was permitted to speak with or see became more and more restricted until only he was left.
I know when I met Joshua that he was emotionally wounded and in my naivete and arrogance, I wanted to heal him to make him right. All my life, that had been my instinct. But by the end of our time together, I was the one in need of healing.
It was clear to me when I fled Joshua that the blinder I wore because of my neurological deficits had gotten me into that relationship. Cognitive exercises had removed those blinders; learning to understand the world and starting to heal had gotten me out. I felt an odd mixture of sadness and relief.
During those years with Joshua, my work with learning-disabled children became my refuge, the place where I put my heart and my soul and all my creative energy. I was, and I remain, grateful for this work, which is healing work.
So, let’s hear from our readers how you relate to this story. What threads of it are significant for you?