It is said that the brain is like a muscle that needs to be exercised to get stronger. If you don’t use it, you lose it. Well, it goes a little further than that. In chapter 2 of “The Brain That Changes Itself”, Norman Doidge writes about Barbara Arrowsmith Young who was labelled retarded but she managed to “heal” her brain dysfunctions through brain exercises that she developed.
The interesting thing about Barbara was that although she had some severe learning disabilities, she was also brilliant in other ways. For instance, her auditory and visual memory tested in the 99th percentile. Because of this, she was able to use her the power of her memory to cover her deficits and get through “normal” school, albeit she managed this with great difficulty and was under tremendous pressure.
It wasn’t until she was 28 years old when she discovered that the key to treating her learning deficits was not to compensate for them (which she had been doing her entire life) but to exercise her weakest areas. She did so by practicing with exercises she designed herself until she “normalised” her deficiencies.
After her breakthrough, she founded the Arrowsmith school to help others like herself who had learning disabilities to overcome them with brain exercises that she developed.
What is the significance of this? My children don’t have learning disabilities.
Everyone has some weak brain functions. Even if it does not detract from their ability to learn the way Barbara’s did, it has the potential to impact on their professional success in later life because most careers require the use of multiple brain functions. Minor deficiencies are easily overlooked and incorrectly labelled just as Barbara was believed to be mentally retarded because of her severe learning disabilities.
For example, children who appear to be struggling in class would benefit from a brainarea-based assessment to identify their weak areas. They can then strengthen those weaknesses with specific brain exercises. Usually, such children are sent for remedial classes or tutoring which merely repeat the lessons at school with the hope that the child might understand them better with additional reviews.
The Arrowsmith methodology is to strengthen the weak links in the chain so these individuals gain access to skills whose development were formerly blocked. In some ways it is a little like the concept of treating a lazy eye. Under normal circumstances, the lazy eye gets weaker as the individual relies less and less on the weak eye. Similarly, the inherent weaknesses in an individual progressively get worse through avoidance of use. Once those skills are restored with specific brain exercises targeting the weak areas, these individuals are then better able to reach their full potential. Here is an example from the book:
“A patient of mine, before he did the brain exercises, had a sense that he was very bright but could not make full use of his intelligence. For a long time I mistakenly thought his problems were based primarily on psychological conflicts, such as a fear of competition, and buried conflicts about surpassing his parents and siblings. Such conflicts did exist and did hold him back. But I came to see that his conflict about learning — his wish to avoid it — was based mostly on years of frustration and on a very legitimate fear of failure based on his brain’s limits. Once he was liberated from his difficulties by Arrowsmith’s exercises, his innate love of learning emerged full force.”
Ideally, brain-based assessments should be performed early so that if problems were discovered, exercises to strengthen the weakened areas can commence during the early years when neuroplasticity is greatest.
“It is far better to nip brain problems in the bud than to allow the child to wire into his brain the idea that he is “stupid,” begin to hate school and learning, and stop work in the weakened area, losing whatever strength he may have. Younger children often progress more quickly through brain exercises than do adolescents, perhaps because in an immature brain the number of connections among neurons, or synapses, is 50 percent greater than in the adult brain. When we reach adolescence, a massive “pruning back” operation begins in the brain, and synaptic connections and neurons that have not been used extensively suddenly die off — a classic case of “use it or lose it.” It is probably best to strengthen weakened areas while all this extra cortical real estate is available.”
That said, it is never too late for neuroplasticity. Even adults can benefit from the implementation of brain exercises. In fact, brain exercises have also been shown to halt, or slow down, age-related and disease-related effects on the brain. Additionally,
“brain-based assessments can be helpful all through school and even in college and university, when many students who did well in high school fail because their weak brain functions are overloaded by the increased demand. Even apart from these crises, every adult could benefit from a brain-based cognitive assessment, a cognitive fitness test, to help them better understand their own brain.”
What can you do if you don’t have access to the Arrowsmith school? One brain fitness program you can try is Mindsparke which is intended for 14 years and above, or Mindsparke Junior which is for age 6-11 years.
Building a Better Brain with Mindsparke Junior
Mindsparke Junior offers fun brain training exercises that act as a focus booster and memory trainer for children from 6 to 11-years old. The training works for all children and will give any child an increase in the core mental abilities that determine academic success, increasing test scores, attention in the classroom, and diligence.
- Four games strengthen visual and aural working memory, focus, and attention
- Automatically adjusts the level of difficulty and training duration to your child’s growing ability
- Enables you to tailor the training speed to your child’s preference
- Selectable game themes tickle the six-year-old and thrill the twelve-year-old
Why it Works:
Neuroscientists and psychologists once believed that children grow and learn according to their genetic makeup. They now acknowledge that a child’s environment plays a critical role in the development of intellectual skills. Children develop intellectual skills at different rates and can develop more strongly in some areas than others.
Since a child’s brain is naturally susceptible to stimulation, any child will benefit from an effective brain training program that develops core brain functions (working memory, attention, and mental agility). For the parent of a child with learning difficulties, brain training can be particularly useful; the problems the child faces often seem daunting, but the correct intervention will be extremely effective, in some cases even eliminating the dysfunction entirely.
Many studies have tied a child’s working-memory capacity with his or her ability to focus in school and perform well academically. Extensive evidence links working memory to performance in literacy and numeracy1. A study of over 3,000 primary-school children connected working memory impairment to below-average scores in reading and math2. And recent research confirms that working memory capacity, not IQ, predicts academic success3. Learning disabilities such as dyslexia, ADHD, and developmental coordination disorder, exhibit a similar pattern4. Children with working memory impairment find it difficult to remember instructions and complete tasks, thereby putting their academic success at risk5.
Research laboratories around the world study working memory, looking at the connection between working memory capacity and intelligence, success at emotional regulation6, and other cognitive abilities7, furthering the understanding of autism8 and ADHD9, and improving teaching methods.
- Michael Merzenich on Improving the Brain and Brain Training Programs
- Merzenich on Learning Difficulties, Autism and Brain Training
- Re-Designing the Brain: Sharpening Perception and Memory, and Increasing Speed of Thought
- MyBrainLab – Helping Kids Become Faster, Smarter, Better
- Neuroplasticity: Fixing My Brain – for Children with Learning Disabilities