Written by Vanessa Deeg for 'deeg's place'
Scientists have known for a long time now that the brain can change. In the 1930's a doctor named Alexander Luria did studies on war veterans who suffered brain injuries. He found that with intensive exercises, improvements did occur. Norman Doidge, MD, wrote a great book called 'The Brain That Changes Itself', which references some of Alexander Luria's studies and outlines several profiles of clinicians and scientists who have studied neuroplasticity. Barbara Arrowsmith Young is one of the profiles.
Barbara Arrowsmith Young has one of the most inspiring and amazing stories of neuroplasticity overcoming challenges. She had severe learning disabilities growing up, despite being incredibly gifted and intelligent. Everything she read and wrote was backward, she was awkward, lost, uncoordinated. She had trouble telling time and could not grasp the concepts of symbol relationships, such as; her mother's daughter, etc. Through what can only be described as an act of heroic dedication, perseverance, and genius, she developed exercises to overcome her problems and went on to attain a bachelor's degree, master's degree, where she studied the work of Alexander Luria. Following graduate studies, she went on to work at a reading clinic at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, OISE, studying reading. She wrote her autobiography called, 'The Woman Who Changed Her Brain' and is invited to speak to audiences worldwide. Now she is the director of The Arrowsmith School in Toronto, with three locations, where everyday students complete intensive exercises to change their brains.
The brain can change because it is plastic. Neuroplasticity is the technical term. No, it's not made of the plastic that comes from China. It's plastic, which means that it is malleable, and is changeable. If you look at the way neurons work, they connect with other neurons (via dendrites) when they are used, or active. If you don't use them, you lose them, but if you use them a lot, they grow, and they make even more connections to neurons around them.
Have you ever seen The Blue Planet by the BBC? It's one of my favorite shows. There is a part about coral reefs and when some of the coral reefs try to expand, they exude their guts and consume the different type of coral reefs beside it. Neurons are kind of like coral reefs in a way. The neurons that are most active in your brain, will continue to expand, and extend their reach to other areas of the brain, even if they are not designated for the specific task.
The brain is mapped into specific sections, which perform specific duties. The neuropsychologists who discovered these zones are called 'locationists'. It is interesting to know that there is no zone for reading. Every single time a person learns to read, in essence, they are changing their brain.
I learned that in a book I read called 'Proust and the Squid' by Maryanne Wolf, Director of The Centre for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University in Boston. There are so many facets and micro-processes going on in the brain when a person learns to read, and all of the different functions need to work together at rapid-fire automaticity. When even one neuron is different; a different shape, in a slightly different location, or are not working the way they need to, reading acquisition will be affected. We can see that in the case of dyslexia. When scientists take fMRI images of a brain reading, with and without dyslexia, one can see that there are very different areas being lit up by the task. In the dyslexic brain, areas that light up are working overtime, but they are not getting the job done effectively.
The discoveries of neuroscience are good news for people with learning disabilities. It's good news because neuroscientists are using terms like neurodiversity instead of 'abnormality', and they are finding that the spectrum of diversity is so broad, that it is getting more difficult to determine actually what 'normal' really is. Mary Vanscoy, Ph.D., a Niagara College professor who trained me to use the Lindamood-Bell program that I now teach, compared the brain to a face. Everyone has the same features on their face; we all have a nose and eyes and a mouth, but every single person looks completely different and unique. The physical features and layout of every single person's brain are as unique and different as their face and their personality.
Neurodiversity and neuroplasticity give us hope for the future of learning disabilities for a couple reasons: 1. With the right type of rigorous, specific training, learning disabilities can be changed and improved. 2. As science establishes concrete knowledge about the brain and shapes the way the education is delivered, people with learning disabilities may no longer have to feel the shame and disappointment of failure because a few neurons aren't cooperating in a job they were never intended to do by nature.
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Vanessa Deeg is an Ontario Certified Teacher who teaches reading to adults and teens with learning disabilities. She lives in Niagara, ON.