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  • I want to share a little secret,

  • which I hope will not be a secret by the end of the talk.

  • I am truly, madly, deeply passionate about the human brain.

  • Science has taught us that our brain shapes us,

  • that it makes us uniquely who we are.

  • And if we think about our brain, it has 200 billion neurons.

  • Think about the world's population: that's a mere 7 billion.

  • And we have hundreds of trillions of connections in our brain.

  • If we imagine all the stars in the Milky Way Galaxy,

  • there are more connections in our brain, than all of those stars combined.

  • So, this incredibly complex organ that we carry with us

  • everywhere we go, it does shape who we are.

  • It is a filter, it filters our perceptions

  • and our understanding of ourselves, of others, of our world,

  • and of our place in that world.

  • And, what is incredibly amazing

  • is no two brains are exactly alike.

  • If you look at the person next to you,

  • and you note all the physical differences between you:

  • the shape of your nose, the color of your eyes, your height,

  • there are more differences between your two brains

  • than all of those physical differences in combination.

  • So, our brain does make us uniquely us.

  • And I am here today to share with you my story,

  • and it's a story of how I came to learn

  • that not only does our brain shape us,

  • but that we can actually shape our brain.

  • My story began in Grade 1,

  • and in Grade 1 I was identified as having a mental block.

  • I was told I had a defect.

  • And I was told I would never learn like other children.

  • And really, the message at that time was loud and clear.

  • I was told I needed to learn to live with those limitations.

  • And this was 1957, and it was the time of the unchangeable brain.

  • And childhood was a profound struggle for me.

  • I couldn't tell time. I couldn't understand the relationship

  • between an hour hand and a minute hand on a clock.

  • I couldn't understand language. Most of what I read, or heard,

  • was really as intelligible as the 'Jabberwocky'.

  • I could understand concrete things.

  • If somebody said to me, "The man is wearing a black coat",

  • I could paint the picture in my head, and I could understand that.

  • But what I couldn't do was understand concepts, or ideas, or relationships.

  • So, lots of things were confusing.

  • I pondered, how could my aunt also be my mother's sister?

  • And what did that fraction, 1/4, really mean?

  • Any kind of abstract concept was hard for me.

  • Irony in jokes: that was impossible.

  • So, I learned to laugh when other people did.

  • Cause and effect: it did not exist in my world.

  • There were no reasons behind why things happened.

  • My world was a series of disconnected bits and pieces of unrelated fragments.

  • And eventually, my fragmented view of the world

  • ended up causing a very fragmented sense of myself.

  • And that wasn't all: this whole left side of my body

  • was like an alien being, unconnected to the rest of me.

  • I would bang and bump into things on the left side of my body.

  • If I picked up anything in this left hand, I would drop it.

  • If I put this left hand on the hot burner, I would feel pain,

  • but I had no idea where it was coming from.

  • I was truly a danger to myself.

  • My mother, she was convinced I would be dead by the age of 5.

  • And then, if that wasn't enough, I had a spatial problem.

  • I couldn't imagine three-dimensional space.

  • I couldn't create maps in my head.

  • I would constantly get lost, even in my friend's house.

  • Crossing the street instilled terror.

  • I could not judge how far away was that car.

  • Geometry was a nightmare.

  • I felt incredible shame.

  • I felt there was something horribly, horribly wrong with me.

  • And in my child's mind, when I'd heard that diagnosis,

  • of having a mental block, I actually thought

  • I had a wooden cube in my head that made learning difficult.

  • And I didn't have a piece of wood in my head, but I wasn't far wrong.

  • I had blockages, as I was later to learn,

  • in very critical parts of my brain.

  • And I tried all the traditional approaches, they were all about compensation,

  • and about working around the problem,

  • finding a strength to support a weakness.

  • They were not about trying to address the source of the problem,

  • and they took heroic effort, and led to rather limited results for me.

  • Then, Grade 8.

  • I hit the wall.

  • I could not imagine how I could go on to high school,

  • and handle more complex curriculum.

  • The only option I could see was ending my life.

  • So, I decided to end the pain.

  • And the next morning, when I woke up after my failed suicide attempt,

  • I berated myself for not even being able to get that right.

  • So, I soldiered on.

  • And part of what kept me going was an attitude that I learned from my father.

  • He was an inventor, and he was passionate about the creative process.

  • He taught me that if there's a problem, and there's no solution,

  • you go out and create a solution.

  • And the other thing he taught me was

  • that before you can solve a problem, you have to identify its nature.

  • So I continued my hunt. I went on to study psychology,

  • to try to understand what was wrong with me,

  • what was the source of my problem.

  • And then, in the summer of 1977, something life-altering happened.

  • I met a mind like my own,

  • A Russian soldier, Lev Zasetsky, the only difference being

  • his mind was shaped by a bullet,

  • and mine had been that way since birth.

  • I met Zasestky on the pages of a book, 'The Man With a Shattered World',

  • wrtitten by the brilliant Russian neuropsychologist, Alexander Luria.

  • As I read Zasetsky's story,

  • he couldn't tell time, he described living in a dense fog.

  • All he got was fragments, bits and pieces.

  • This man was living my life.

  • So now, at the age of 25, in 1977,

  • I knew the source of my problem.

  • It was a part of my brain, in the left hemisphere, that wasn't working.

  • And then I came across the work of Mark Rosenzweig,

  • and he showed me a solution.

  • Rosenzweig was working with rats,

  • and he found that rats in an enriched and stimulating environment

  • were better learners.

  • And then he went and looked at their brains:

  • their brains had changed physiologically to support that learning.

  • And this was neuroplasticity in action.

  • Neuroplasticity, simply put, the brain's ability to change

  • physiologically and functionally, as the result of stimulation.

  • So now I knew what I had to do.

  • I had to find a way to work, to exercise my brain,

  • to strengthen those weak parts.

  • And this was the beginning of my transformation and of my life's work.

  • And I had to believe that humans must have at least as much neuroplasticity,

  • and hopefully more, than rats.

  • So, I went on to create my first exercise.

  • And I used clocks, because clocks are form of relationship,

  • and I had never been able to tell time.

  • So I started with the two-handed clock,

  • to force my brain to process relationships,

  • and then I added a third hand, and then a fourth hand,

  • because I wanted to make my brain to work harder, and harder, and harder,

  • to pull together concepts and understand their connection.

  • And about three to four months in,

  • I knew something significant had changed.

  • I'd always wanted to read philosophy, and had never been able to understand it.

  • And I just happened to have access to a philosophy library.

  • So I went in, and I pulled a book off the shelf,

  • and I opened it to a page at random,

  • and I read that page, and I understood it as I was reading it.

  • This had never happened in my entire life.

  • And then I thought, maybe it's a fluke, maybe that was just an easy book.

  • So I pulled another book off the shelf, opened it, read it, and understood it.

  • And by the time I was finished, I was surrounded by a pile of a hundred books,

  • and I had been able to read and understand each page.

  • So I knew that something had changed.

  • (Applause)

  • Thank you. My experiment had worked.

  • The human brain was capable of change.

  • And then I decided to create an exercise

  • for that alien part of my body,

  • and for that I knew I had to work on an area in the right hemisphere,

  • the somatosensory cortex that registers sensation.

  • I created an exercise for that and I am no longer a danger to myself.

  • And then I decided, that spatial problem,

  • because I was really tired of getting lost,

  • and so I created another exercise for that,

  • and I don't get lost, I can actually read maps -- I don't like GPS's,

  • because I like to read maps now, because I can. (Laughter)

  • So, I knew now, the brain could change.

  • I was living proof of human neuroplasticity.

  • And what really breaks my heart

  • is that I still meet people today,

  • children, individuals, that are struggling with learning problems,

  • and they're still being told what I was told in 1957,

  • that they need to learn to live with their limitations,

  • they don't dare to dream.

  • And what I learned since 1977,

  • when I met Zasetsky and Luria, and Rosenzweig,

  • is that, yes, our brain does shape us,

  • it impacts how we can engage, and participate, and be in the world,

  • and every single one of us

  • has our own unique profile of cognitive strengths and weaknesses.

  • And if there's a limitation, we don't necessarily have to live with it.

  • We now know about neuroplasticity,

  • and we can harness the brain's changeable characteristics,

  • to create programs to actually strengthen and stimulate and change our brain.

  • And in 1966, Rosenzweig threw down the gauntlet.

  • He said, his challenge was: "Let's take what he'd learned with rats,

  • and apply it to human learning."

  • And we need to embrace that challenge,

  • we need to also challenge current practices

  • that are still operating out of that paradigm of the unchangeable brain.

  • We need to work together to take what we know now about neuroplasticity,

  • and develop programs that actually shape our brains,

  • to change the future of learning.

  • My vision is of a world that we create,

  • in which no child has to live

  • with the ongoing struggle and pain of a learning disability.

  • My vision is that cognitive exercises become just a normal part of curriculum.

  • My vision is that school becomes a place that we go to strengthen our brain,

  • to become really efficient and effective learners,

  • engaged in a learning process,

  • where not only, as learners, can we dare to dream,

  • but we can realize our dream.

  • And to me, this is the perfect marriage between neuroscience and education.

  • Thank you.

  • (Applause)

I want to share a little secret,

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A2 US brain shape read learning understand couldn

【TEDx】The Woman Who Changed Her Brain: Barbara Arrowsmith-Young at TEDxToronto

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    Vicky posted on 2014/07/14
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