"[J]ust as our brains shape us, we can shape our brains."
For as long as I’ve known him, my friend T has had an odd mannerism. When I’d walk up to him in a group, he’d give me a blank glance and say nothing. When I’d join the conversation, he’d suddenly blurt, “Joel! Hey, how are you?” as if he’d just seen me.
In reality, that was when he’d first recognized me.
T can’t tell the difference between two faces any more than you can tell the difference between two sheets of paper. Until he identifies people by some other means, he doesn’t know, can’t know, who they are.
This creates challenges. When T goes to the airport to pick his wife up after visiting her mother, he has to ensure that he’s “picking up” the right woman, because he can’t recognize her. After a certain incident involving a woman wearing a coat exactly like one his wife owns, he’s learned to be circumspect when approaching women at airports.
Prosopagnosia is the fancy name for face-blindness. It’s one of many neurological conditions which Barbara Arrowsmith-Young has learned can be addressed with carefully crafted mental exercises which literally change the brain.
When T finally thought to mention this to me just over a year ago, I was floored. I have seen him accomplish amazing feats of recognition due entirely to amazing coping strategies. He spent his entire childhood learning how to recognize people. He was 18 before he realized that most people have a system in their brain which makes it the most natural thing in the world.
The two halves of that story, T’s coping strategies and my failure to recognize his condition, are the two Insights below. Each side of the coin has a lesson.
The Big Idea
Learning Physically Changes Your Brain
"Only as recently as 2000 did Eric Kandel of Columbia University win the Nobel Prize for his work demonstrating that learning in response to environmental demands changes the brain."
You were taught in school that our brains don’t change. What you’re born with is what you’ve got. Kill off some brain cells, and they’re gone forever. Some people are quick and some people are slow. Good at math, or not. Musical, artistic, or not.
We have implicitly believed or been explicitly taught that while we can work hard and develop a certain level of proficiency, if we aren’t wired for something we’ll never be a “natural” at it. Worse, that if someone has a deficiency in some area, that’s their lot in life.
Arrowsmith-Young, born with numerous neurological conditions, has proven that in many cases, it’s just not true. The website for the Arrowsmith Program says that “it is possible for students to strengthen the weak cognitive capacities underlying their learning dysfunctions through a program of specific cognitive exercises.”
We're Not Good at Recognizing Cognitive Deficits in Ourselves
"Here is an opportunity to understand the mental glitches and deeper problems of their own..."
Like my friend T, most people who have neurological disorders which are diagnosed as learning disabilities have created coping strategies to try to keep up in school and in life. It’s our nature to assume that everyone is like us. In the stories Arrowsmith-Young tells of people with neurological impairment, all assumed that others had someone overcome the same challenges they faced. It wasn’t until they were tested that they realized that what they had was, not a deficiency in character, but a physical problem in their brain.
The appendix of The Woman Who Changed Her Brain lists 19 cognitive deficits and the most common phrases used by those with that deficit to explain themselves or compensate for it. I’m including the list of those phrases below. Read each one, and ask yourself if you can hear yourself saying it, either now, or when you were in school.
The natural reaction is to develop compensating skills instead of addressing the problem, often because no one realizes there is either a problem or a solution.
Each of us occasionally suffers a mental lapse, but if one or more of these phrases seems to be a natural part of who you are, consider the possibility that you’ve been compensating for a physical limitation in your brain—a limitation for which there may be exercises which lead to significantly improved cognitive powers.
In other words, at least consider the possibility that it’s not your fault.
We're Not Good at Recognizing Cognitive Deficits in Others
"...or of others in a new way."
You might assume that someone who lacks the ability to recognize human faces would be socially awkward. In T’s case, you’d be wrong. No matter where he is, he’s the center of the fun, the core of the fascinating conversation, the spark of the activity.
It’s easy, then, to assume there’s a personal problem when you walk up to him and he gives you that blank look, as if he doesn’t even recognize you. What’s hard is coming to the conclusion that this is precisely what’s happening.
Cognitive deficits tend to be localized, allowing people to excel in unaffected areas. In the stories of Arrowsmith School students, their friends, families, teachers and employers consistently assumed that the problem was attitude.
- Parents assumed that their child just wasn’t listening.
- Teachers assumed that their student just wasn’t trying.
- Managers assumed that their employee didn’t care about their work.
- Friends assumed that their friend didn’t care about them.
Once again, look at the list of 19 phrases below. Do you know someone whose mantra seems to be one or more of these?
Consider the possibility that it’s not their fault. And if you want to be the world’s greatest parent, teacher, manager, or friend, ask them about it. I wish I’d asked T about his odd mannerism years ago. Our friendship would have grown faster, and deeper.
Habitual Phrases Which May Indicate Cognitive Deficits
- Please don’t erase the blackboard yet.
- I just don’t get it.
- I have a memory like a sieve.
- My words don’t always come out in the right order.
- People say I mumble.
- I’m sorry, could you repeat that?
- Planning was never my strong suit.
- I was never a great reader.
- I’m not good at remembering the names of things.
- I am such a klutz.
- I slur my words sometimes.
- I’m just not good at reading people.
- My eyes hurt when I read.
- Have we met?
- I am forever getting lost.
- I’m not handy.
- I couldn’t program the VCR to save my life.
- My reaction time is a bit slow.
- I’m not a numbers person.
It’s easy to gloss over these challenges in ourselves or others. That’s just how I am, we think; that’s just how they are.
The Woman Who Changed Her Brain grabbed me by the lapels and shook me. Reading the anecdotes of people who’ve been helped by the Arrowsmith School I recognized overwhelming parallels to two in my life who I’ve assumed just wasn’t listening, trying, caring.
I consider myself a sensitive and aware person, yet despite my best motives and effort, I’ve made the fundamental error of imputing motives where I now believe there to be a physical foundation for the challenge.
I plan to share this book with them and see what good comes of it.