The Woman Who Changed Her Brain and What We Can Learn From Her

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Last week I was fortunate to be invited to an event (in person at last!!) to hear a remarkable Canadian woman speak: Barbara Arrowsmith–Young.

Barbara is the author of The Woman Who Changed Her Brain - a worldwide bestseller – which tells the incredible story of how she struggled as a child with severe learning disabilities, built herself a better brain, and started a program that has helped thousands of others do the same. 

Sound remarkable? It is!!

It was so inspiring to hear her amazing story, that I immediately asked if she would join me on my podcast so I could share that story with you this week. She said yes, and it’s such an inspiring story for you. You can listen to the episode here… 

There were two things I found particularly inspiring in her story that you will too…

The first was how she went about finding silver linings in the darkest of clouds. Overcoming challenges - as she chased her dream. A dream that to most of us sounds simple - that one-day learning would be easier for her.

Through her struggles and persistence she eventually thrived, and that alone holds many learnings and insights for all of us to apply in our daily lives.

But even more intriguing was how Barbara’s iron will and determination led her to find research that inspired her to invent exercises to literally fix her own brain – validated by recent neuroscience research - and what that means for the rest of us in terms of how we can shape the capacity of our own brains.

In a nutshell, Barbara was born with severe learning disabilities that caused teachers to label her slow, stubborn - or worse.

As a child, she read and wrote everything backward, struggled to process concepts in language, continually got lost, and was physically uncoordinated. She could make no sense of an analogue clock. 

Diagnosed in first grade as having ‘a mental block’ - which today would have been identified as multiple learning disabilities - Barbara grew up at a time when most medical experts believed our brains were fixed.

So her only choice was to defy the odds, and find her own solutions to overcome her severe learning challenges. On her own.

And that’s what she did. Her journey has been remarkable.

By relying on her formidable memory and determination, Barbara eventually learnt to read and write from left to right - and she made her way to graduate school, where she chanced upon research that inspired her to invent cognitive exercises to fix her own brain.

She went on to establish the Arrowsmith Program and Arrowsmith School – working for over 40 years helping thousands of children and adults change their brains.

Recent discoveries in neuroscience have conclusively demonstrated that, by engaging in certain mental tasks or activities, we actually change the structure of our brains - from the cells themselves to the connections between cells. The capability of nerve cells to change is known as neuroplasticity, which Barbara had been putting into practice for decades. 

Another thing that really struck me in our conversation was how she told me her Dad had told her, “It’s your responsibility to go out and find a solution”.

It sounds a little harsh, but Barbara was fine with it – and that’s exactly what she did.

On reflection, it’s what I often share with others. We all need to jump into the driver’s seat of our own life. No one is coming to save us.

Another fascinating takeout for me was how life-changing it was that her Dad told her, “If the rest of the world tells you that you can’t do it, don’t listen.” That drove her forward and was a big part of her not giving up.

It’s so similar to what has served me well over the years. As I so often say, ‘don’t take no for an answer easily’ and ‘don’t say no, say ‘how?’”.

So… Barbara stayed curious, committed herself to learning and didn’t give up.

She describes the hardships she faced and overcame as being her ‘biggest teachers’. There’s something in that for all of us.

And I loved how she spoke about dealing with her ‘tremendous self-doubt’ and the advice she gives to others – summed up as: You can’t just get rid of self-doubt, you need to harness the power of it.

In Barbara’s words, “Just step into your self-doubt… bring the fear with you… get comfortable with it… acknowledge it… treat it like a companion.

It’s a fallacy to think you’re just going to get rid of it. Each time you step into your self-doubt it becomes a little easier. It’s about neuroplasticity. You’re building new neural pathways as you act. And as you have positive experiences you reinforce the pathways, and it gets easier.”

In addition to that I love how she added, “And you can use meditation to help you create calm and develop your growth mindset… and surround yourself with positive people who are going to encourage and support you.” 

So, if you want to be inspired to overcome your own challenges and you’re interested in fascinating insights into how you can change your own brain, don’t miss taking a front row seat on my conversation with Barbara in my latest podcast episode here. It’s truly inspiring. 

I can’t wait to hear what you think so please let me know in the comments below...

And remember, it’s great to have these insights but the important thing is to move from inspiration to action - and to put your insights into practice.

So try to take a minute to reflect on what you’ve read here - makes notes in your journal - and decide what actions you’re going to take as a result.

...and if you need a beautiful journal to capture life learnings, have a look here for one you love, that you can personalise with your name on the front cover.

And please, let me know in the comments below how you feel about the above, what you'll put into practice as a result ...and then come back to let us know how it goes, so we can all learn from and be inspired by each other.

Dream Big!


Dream Life Founder  

PS: Talking about finding silver linings in challenges, I've had my own share of those lately (I think we all do!) and I will tell you more about that in the future, but I now have a specific journal for all my silver linings ‘when life gives you lemons’. 

Because when life gives us lemons, let’s make lemonade together!   


1 comment

  • Jeanie Guhl

    Interested in neuroplasticity as it relates to a panic like experience when driving or being driven/ I understand the being driven as a lack of control . My own fear of movement and speed when driving cripples me. I am 71 and have lived with this! It takes my independence and I understand that neuroplasticity is the Avenue I need to work through ! Thank you ! Jeanie

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