Ten Terrifying Questions
1. To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born? Raised? Schooled?
I was born in Toronto, Ontario Canada and when I was five my family moved to Peterborough, a small city two hours East of Toronto, so my father could pursue his career as an electrical engineer with Canadian General Electric. Peterborough is in the heart of the Kawartha Lakes district so I grew up hiking, canoeing, camping and learning to love and appreciate the outdoors. My parents were avid readers and so I grew up surrounded by books and a love of reading. Many a time I would open a book and escape into another world.
I have for as long as I can remember been fascinated by learning and why for some people learning is easy and not for others (like myself for the first 26 years of my life) so I always knew my vocation was in the field of learning.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
Nothing comes to mind. I was raised in a family with strong humanitarian values and a belief in the importance of being of service in this world, and that has shaped me and remains unchanged.
Starting grade 1 and struggling with learning and overhearing a conversation between my teacher and mother in which I was diagnosed as having a mental block and my mother was told that I would never learn like other children.
Discovering and reading Aleksandr Luria’s book, The Man with a Shattered World: The History of a Brain Wound. I could see the parallel between the problems of Lyova Zazetsky, the soldier who had a very specific brain wound, described in this book and the challenges I had had since birth related to my severe learning disability – for the first time I understood what was not working in my brain. If I could identify where the problem was, I felt I was significantly along the path of addressing the problem which became my life’s work.
Creating the first cognitive exercise for myself and after months of hard and determined work seeing such a shift in how I could understand the world around me, from grasping conversations, to understanding mathematics, to comprehending what I read the first time I read it. I no longer lived in a fog of confusion. This demonstrated for me that the human brain was neuroplastic and capable of change.
5. Considering the innumerable electronic media avenues open to you – blogs, online newspapers, TV, radio, etc – why have you chosen to write a book? Aren’t they obsolete?
Books for me will never be obsolete. There is a depth and breadth to the material that can be explored and developed in a book which can not be covered in the shorter forms of information dissemination such as blogs, newspapers, etc.
6. Please tell us about your latest book, The Woman Who Changed Her Brain…
This book is a very personal story and also a very universal story. The personal was born out of my struggle to understand why I was the way I was – with very real and crippling learning deficits.
And it is universal as everyone has his or her own unique profile of brain strengths and weaknesses. My life and this book is an exploration of the territory of the brain and how it makes us uniquely who we are, how understanding this territory can give us insight into our functioning and the functioning of others. And what is most promising is that through the application of the principles of neuroplasticity this book illustrates that not only does our brain shape us but that we can shape our brain.
In this book we meet and hear the stories of others with very specific cognitive deficits. We hear what living with these deficits is like and the transformation that occurs as the weakness is turned into a strength. We meet the ‘pile people’ who leave everything in line of sight because for these people out of sight is literally out of mind – they can not construct spatial maps or visualize their way into space so once something is put away, it can no longer be called to mind. We meet people for whom the visual world is flat and grey and uninteresting, who can not create pictures in their heads of what they have seen or where they have been or of the faces of people they know. We meet the ‘klutzes’ who do not know where their body is in space because the brain is not supplying sensory feedback to tell the person how far or close they are to objects such as door frames. They trip over their own feet, vacuuming can be a dangerous contact sport as they trip over the vacuum or misjudge how close the hose is to their body and end up bruised. Their car is dented since by extension they can not judge where the side of the car is in space. We meet the person who is a transcriber who struggles with discriminating speech sounds so is exhausted at the end of the day after having to pay so much attention to listening over and over again to hear the words to be transcribed. We meet people who struggle with thinking and planning and for whom problems appear as an insurmountable wall since they don’t have the cognitive function in the part of the brain required for mental initiative. We meet people with a poor auditory memory who scribble notes on their hands or are lost without their ‘to do lists’ because they can not hold this information in memory. And the people for whom ‘10’ ‘100’ and ‘1,000’ all mean about the same, who run out of money and can’t schedule time – they are quantity blind.
We all have a brain and how it functions shapes who we are – it is our brain that mediates our understanding of the world, so yes our brain does shape us and what is, for me, so profound, is that we now have the knowledge and tools to shape our brains – to open doors of possibility to allow people to dream and to realize their dreams.
This is a book of compassion, inspiration and hope.
To open a world of possibilities for people with learning disabilities by changing their brains through strengthening cognitive capacities so that they never have to take a path that is one they did not chose, but was chosen for them due to their learning challenges; so that these individuals can not only dare to dream but realize their dreams.
8. Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?
Aleksandr Romanovich Luria, who had to reinvent himself many times in his career through the era of Stalin, and who with his brilliant mind and compassionate nature contributed so much to our understanding of the human brain. I dedicated my book to Luria.
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
I am always looking at how I can take what I have learnt, the cognitive programs I have developed, and make them more widely accessible while maintaining the integrity and effectiveness of delivery so that the widest range of individuals with learning challenges can benefit. I would like to see cognitive programs be part of every child’s educational program in school so that schools are a place that children come not just to learn content but to work their brains, to improve their capacity to learn and to carry this with them throughout life.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
Write what you are passionate about.
Barbara, thank you for playing.
Did you know? Barbara Arrowsmith Young’s journey of discovery and innovation to overcome her own severe learning disabilities, were described briefly in Chapter 2 of the book, “The Brain That Changes Itself” by Dr. Norman Doidge.
About the Contributor
John Purcell (aka Natasha Walker) is the author of The Secret Lives of Emma trilogy published by Random House Australia. The Secret Lives of Emma: Beginnings reached the top ten on the Australian fiction charts and Natasha/John was the tenth highest selling Australian novelist and third highest selling Australian debut author in 2012. The trilogy has since sold over 50,000 copies in print and ebook and has been translated into French, Korean and Polish. John has worked in the book industry for over twenty-five years. While still in his twenties he opened John’s Bookshop, a second-hand bookshop in Mosman in which he sat for ten years reading, ranting and writing. Now he is the Director of Books at booktopia.com.au.