Cognitive Calisthenics to Increase Weakened Brain Functioning

April 15, 2014 - 5:39pm

It is a common belief that our brains shape us; but evidence shows that we can shape our brains.

Barbara Arrowsmith- Young was labeled stubborn and slow by her teachers. She read and wrote everything backwards, struggled to understand language concepts, and was simply uncoordinated. Despite all that, she relied on her memory and through determination attended university. She, by chance, engaged in research that inspired her to create cognitive exercises to ‘fix’ the deficiencies in her brain.

She then founded the Arrowsmith Program in the early 70’s, using these brain exercises to change the structure of the brain, starting with the cells to the connections between these cells. This is also known as neuroplasticity. Research has shown that she has since helped numerous learners with learning disabilities change their brain functioning.

Specific exercises targeted specific areas of weaknesses so that those areas were strengthened.

Problems with reading, memory, expressive language, comprehension, math, executive functioning, impulsivity, attention, difficulties with writing, or even reading expressions and emotions in others can be addressed through this program. It is based on the premise that stimulation of the brain in specific ways to target specific areas of deficiency will improve brain functioning.

Dr. Eric Kandel who won the Nobel Prize in 2001 showed that as snails learned, their neural connections were physically altered and strengthened. Experiments conducted using rats showed that rats placed in cognitively stimulating environments had heavier brains with better blood supply and more neurotransmitters than rats placed in cognitively impoverished environments.

Barbara Arrowsmith-Young identified exercises for the 19 areas that are linked to the most common learning disabilities. The success of the program is said to lie with improving cognitive functioning as students go on to apply their improved brain potential to math, reading, writing and spelling, for example. The program itself does not teach reading, writing, math or spelling. This means that students working in the Arrowsmith Program should also receive daily instruction in these areas during their time in the program. The program is designed to address a complexity of learning challenges.

Students in the program are usually above average in cognitive ability, have a combination of learning dysfunctions, do not have severe emotional and behavioral problems that would affect their ability to gain from this intensive programming, do not have Autism or an acquired brain injury, and are in the elementary to post-secondary age range.

The program is said to bring about more efficient learning, training visual and auditory memory, including attention and concentration, improving fine motor skills important for writing and note-taking, strengthening memory, processing speed, strengthening executive functioning and building the capacity for verbal and non-verbal skills of thinking, reasoning and problem solving.

An example of an exercise to address a problem with visually recognizing symbols as in not being able to discriminate and thus decode letters entails various symbols being flashed on a computer screen. Students must learn to recognize the different symbols.

However, English words are not used. Instead words in other languages not familiar to the learner are used, such as Hebrew, Chinese, and Burmese. For improving symbol relations, learners are asked to tell the time. They start with a clock that has one hand, and this progresses to a clock with 10 hands on the computer. Gradually, 60th of a second hands are added, then 100th’s. Accuracy within a specified time period is needed.

These exercises are definitely not ordinary and ‘in the box’ learning tools. They are meant to stimulate the brain in ways that change it for the better. After all, a determination to make the brain work more efficiently means doing things differently to get different results.

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