Arrowsmith and Neuroplasticity: The Doidge Connection

In our introduction to the Arrowsmith Program and its founder, Barbara Arrowsmith-Young, I indicated that there are notable learning intervention programs in education that seem like antecedents to its discoveries, such as the Meekers’ Structure of the Intellect (SOI).  A program with which I’ve had personal experience, Processing and Cognitive Enhancement (PACE) has a history and methodology remarkably similar to Arrowsmith.  One essential difference is that the Arrowsmith Program is designed to be used within educational institutions, whereas programs such as SOI and PACE are more readily suited to learning center or home school applications.  Bridges Learning System is an excellent example of how to merge the neuroscientific principles of SOI in cognition with principles of sensory-motor processing.  Given the entree of other cognitive based learning programs in the learning marketplace prior to Arrowsmith-Young, what explains the initial success and resurgence of her program?  In one word, neuroplasticity, and in one name, Norman Doidge, MD.

Doidge and Arrowsmith-Young are fellow Toronto natives.  Each divides their time between Toronto and New York, and their fortuitous Canadian connection remains binding.  Doidge’s 2007 book, The Brain That Changes Itself, garnered all kinds of awards and has become the popular manifesto for neuroplasticity as applied to health, education, and rehabilitation.

If there’s one thing that can help put you on the map, it’s being the subject of an international bestseller.  Such is the good fortune that resulted in Arrowsmith-Young being the second case study that Doidge wrote about in his book.  You can read his description of Arrowsmith-Young’s evolution here, on pages 28-44.  If you vaguely recall reading about Doidge on our blog before, chalk one up for good memory.  It was in the context of Doidge’s review of Oliver Sacks’s book, The Mind’s Eye.  (I fully expect to hear from one of my faithful blog readers and commenters, Dr. Charles Boulet, another creme de la creme Canadien.)

What I wrote bears repeating (as gauche as it may be to cite oneself):

“Doidge notes that in some cases, Sacks’s subjects use their plasticity to rise to a ‘normal’ level of functioning. He writes:  Stereo Sue is the story of Sue Barry, a scientist who grew up with no depth vision. She gained it in adulthood, with training, even though most believed the adult brain was not plastic enough to change. This result is a neuroplastic cure because she, rather than learning to ‘accommodate’ or ‘compensate’ for her problem, actually fixed it with the help of a developmental optometrist.

Few reviewers have grasped the significance of Oliver’s writing about Stereo Sue as well as Doidge, nor credited her and Dr. Ruggiero for their determination and persistence in achieving this neuroplastic cure of her visual problems.  In a beautiful postscript to his chapter, Oliver writes that since acquiring stereoscopy, Sue delights in her “new” sense and finds her world infinitely richer for it.”

In his foreword to Arrowsmith-Young’s book, Doidge writes that to his knowledge, the Arrowsmith School is still the only school completely devoted to helping students, not to work around their brain problems (which is still standard practice in most schools) but to work through them. building up the students’ relatively weak brain areas with brain exercises.   Arrowsmith’s neuroplastic approach to education isn’t quite as unique as Doidge holds it to be, consider Dr. Steve Ingersoll’s Excel Institute for example, but it serves as a counter-trend to the sugar coating of individuals with learning disabilities through accommodating and celebrating their strengths – such as the movement toward championing dyslexia as a gift.  Doidge does have an appropriate caution that practitioners of any intervention would do well to heed.  He writes: “This is not to say that everyone who has tried Arrowsmith-Young’s exercises has succeeded; she has never made that claim, and we should be wary of anyone so enthusiastic as to make it.  No treatment works for everyone all the time.”

If Doidge put Arrowsmith back on the map, programs such as the Sharp Brains Virtual Summit will keep it there.  The Arrowsmith methodologies are worth examining, and in the next installment we’ll look more closely at its connection to visual efficiency and processing.




4 thoughts on “Arrowsmith and Neuroplasticity: The Doidge Connection

  1. Dear Len, I like your statement regarding the neuroplastic versus compensation approach ie learning, when possible, to work through a brain problem rather than finding ways to compensate for it. The biggest adaptation we all probably employ is avoidance – avoiding those things that are difficult for us. This adaptation sets limits on our lives that may not be necessary if we can work through rather than work around our problems. I too liked Doidge’s comment regarding the Stereo Sue chapter in his book review of The Mind’s Eye. -Sue Barry (Stereo Sue)

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