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You can rewire your brain! Well, maybe

As usual, a psychology story in the press which made me think ‘yes, but…’.

This is in today’s (Weds 13 June) Guardian: How Barbara Arrowsmith-Young rebuilt her own brain:

Barbara Arrowsmith-Young had a phenomenal memory but was ‘living in a fog’. She realised that part of her brain was not functioning properly so she devised a series of cognitive exercises to develop it. The results changed her life – and now she has helped thousands of children with learning disabilities

It looks as though this is a PR-inspired article. The second paragraph has the line: “She has just published a groundbreaking, widely praised and enthralling book called The Woman Who Changed Her Brain”. The online version of the article comes with a link to the book in the Guardian bookshop:
Some quick research turned up various online interviews and articles from various parts of the world in the last month or two, like this Australian book fair video: , and she was on at the Hay Festival on 5 June, so I guess the Guardian article is part of a world tour publicising the book – and her Arrowsmith cognitive program for children with learning disabilities:

So I think it’s important to note that this is a story that promotes a commercial operation from Arrowsmith-Young’s point of view, though that’s presumably not why The Guardian thought it worth publishing. That doesn’t mean it’s not psychologically interesting, or (more important) that there might be something here which really could benefit people with cognitive problems.

This is the story. AY (sorry, I ‘m too lazy to keep on typing Arrowsmith-Young) was a child with multiple cognitive problems: in the Australian video linked to above she describes a wider range of problems than are identified in the Guardian article. The basic point seems to be, though, that although she had a “phenomenal” memory, she “didn’t understand anything. Meaning never crystallised. Everything was fragmented, disconnected.” For example, she couldn’t grasp the relationship between hands of a clock and the time. “I was just not attaching meaning to symbols.” In spite of this, by hard work and memory power, she was able to pass school and university courses.
Then she came across two pieces of psychological research. The first was a case study by Alexander Luria of a Russian soldier who had been shot in the head* and suffered damage to the left occipital-temporal-parietal region:

I recognised somebody describing exactly what I experienced. His expressions were the same: living life in a fog. His difficulties were the same: he couldn’t tell the time from a clock, he couldn’t understand bigger and smaller without drawing pictures, he couldn’t tell the difference between the sentences ‘The boy chases the dog’ and ‘The dog chases the boy.’ I began to see that maybe an area of my brain wasn’t working.” [Luria’s book, The Man With a Shattered World (1972), which describes this case, is still available. There’s a useful, but very basic, summary at]

and then:

She read about the work of Mark Rosenzweig, an American researcher who found that laboratory rats given a rich and stimulating environment, with play wheels and toys, developed larger brains than those kept in a bare cage. Rosenzweig concluded that the brain continues developing, reshaping itself based on life experiences, rather than being fixed at birth: a concept known as neuroplasticity. Arrowsmith-Young decided that if rats could grow bigger and better brains, so could she. [Some details of Rosenzweig’s work further down]
So she started devising brain stimulation exercises for herself that would work the parts of her brain that weren’t functioning. She drew 100 two-handed clockfaces on cards, each one telling a different time, and wrote the time each told on the back of the card. Then she started trying to tell the time from each, checking on the back each time to see if she was right. She did this eight to 10 hours a day. Gradually, she got faster and more accurate. Then she added a third hand, to make the task more difficult. Then a fourth, for tenths of a second, and a fifth, for days of the week.
I was experiencing a mental exhaustion like I had never known,” she says, “so I figured something was happening. And by the time I’d done that for three or four months, it really felt like something had shifted, something had fundamentally changed in my brain, allowing me to process and understand information. I watched an edition of 60 Minutes, with a friend, and I got it. I read a page of Kierkegaard – because philosophy is obviously very conceptual, so had been impossible for me – and I understood it. I read pages from 10 books, and every single one I understood. I was like, hallelujah! It was like stepping from darkness into light.””

After all that (some years ago), AY has moved on to become able to talk “fluently and passionately and with great erudition” about her book and about her program for helping children with cognitive deficits. She has developed a range of mental exercises for helping a range of cognitive functions (The Guardian says 19) to help thousands of children diagnosed with ADD or ADHD over the years in 35 schools in the US and Canada.

OK, that’s the story, and it’s very interesting. But a few things worry me.

The first one was wondering how someone with no clear idea of cause and effect, and not able to understand a television news programme (she gives the ability to understand such a program after her exercises as evidence that they had worked), could understand the ideas and implications of Luria’s and Rosensweig’s work, and then make the conceptual jump from that to the clockface card exercise. I think I need more information to understand how that worked. I guess I should read the book.
The second worrying thing is that I don’t know of any peer-reviewed research to support this. A quick search in Google Scholar shows links to stuff published on her website, but not much else. I do know of research which suggests that ‘muscle-style’ training of cognitive abilities doesn’t seem to do much good. So Melby-Lervåg & Hulme (2012), after a meta-analysis of twenty three studies of working memory training, conclude in their abstract:

Meta-analyses indicated that the programs produced reliable short-term improvements in working memory skills. For verbal working memory, these near-transfer effects were not sustained at follow-up, whereas for visuospatial working memory, limited evidence suggested that such effects might be maintained. More importantly, there was no convincing evidence of the generalization of working memory training to other skills (nonverbal and verbal ability, inhibitory processes in attention, word decoding, and arithmetic). The authors conclude that memory training programs appear to produce short-term, specific training effects that do not generalize.

The third thing is my generalised cynicism about the spurious convincingness of explanations which depend on brain function. Now, I may be being unfair to AW, but there is evidence for this spurious convincingness as a general effect**. Weisberg, Keil, Goodstein, Rawson, and Gray’s (2008) paper The Seductive Allure of Neuroscience Explanations (available at tried out good and bad explanations for psychological phenomena, and found that adding a bit of neuroscience flannel enhanced credibility, at least for non-experts. Here’s their abstract:

Explanations of psychological phenomena seem to generate more public interest when they contain neuroscientific information. Even irrelevant neuroscience information in an explanation of a psychological phenomenon may interfere with people’s abilities to critically consider the underlying logic of this explanation. We tested this hypothesis by giving naïve adults, students in a neuroscience course, and neuroscience experts brief descriptions of psychological phenomena followed by one of four types of explanation, according to a 2 (good  explanation vs. bad explanation)  2 (without neuroscience vs. with neuroscience) design. Crucially, the neuroscience information was irrelevant to the logic of the explanation, as confirmed by the expert subjects. Subjects in all three groups judged good explanations as more satisfying than bad ones. But subjects in the two nonexpert groups additionally judged that explanations with logically irrelevant neuroscience information were more satisfying than explanations without. The neuroscience information had a particularly striking effect on non-experts’ judgments of bad explanations, masking otherwise salient problems in these explanations.

For camparison, here’s an accountof the AY approach from AY’s commercial website,

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, and Arrowsmith-Young has been putting it into practice for decades. With great inventiveness, after combining two lines of research, Barbara developed unusual cognitive calisthenics that radically increased the functioning of her weakened brain areas to normal and, in some areas, even above normal levels. She drew on her intellectual strengths to determine what types of drills were required to target the specific nature of her learning problems, and she managed to conquer her cognitive deficits.

I’d prefer some empirical evidence for determining “what types of drills were required”, rather than drawing on AY’s “intellectual strengths”, but the main point is that I think the opening statement is only really supportable in a fairly trivial sense: “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.” Well, yes: to the extent that we’re cognitively changed by what we do, our brains change. What else could be happening? Those changes can affect our experience qualitatively, even in later life. Some years of struggling with singing in a choir, and trying to cope with big books full of notes, have made me almost able to read music directly and recognise intervals in a way which is experientially quite different from my earlier strictly by-ear experience of music, and I encourage anyone to try it – your brain will work better, and you’ll experience things you didn’t before!! – but I don’t see that as a neurological breakthrough. Is the AY statement a neurologically-enhanced not-much-of-an-explanation? Certainly the Rosenzweig*** studies, while important and fascinating, don’t take us into AY territory. You can read an original 1964 Bennet, Diamond, Kreech & Rosenzwieg paper here: (It’s always really valuable to read the originals), and a later 1996 summary (Rosenzweig and Bennett, 1996) here:
R&B were mainly concerned with increase in brain size and connectivity, and later on with improvements in memory and learning (obvious things to look at in rats). I always took that research as being more of a warning about the damaging effects of deprivation more than the enhancing effects of stimulation (though the B&Al paper does distinguish between non-deprivation and extra stimulation). I’m not up-to-date on this stuff, so I’d be interested to hear of more recent evidence which might suggest changes in more advanced cognitive functioning as a result of changed experience (apart from the non-result of M-L&H, cited above).

Am I being too sceptical here?

*People getting shot in the head is a valuable source for psychological/neurological research. If we ever run out of wars (unfortunately, not likely) we’ll have to make do with motorcyclists (note to my friend John: be careful out there).

**I got this reference from one of Ben Goldacre’s blogs about Mind Gym. Goldacre is wonderfully scathing, and funny, about Brain Gym, which also has some neurological explanations which don’t convince me (actually he’s wonderfully funny and scathing about lots of Bad Science – read the book, follow the blog, follow him on Twitter [for an interesting example of one way of using Twitter, including crowdsourcing advice about what to eat in your fridge]). This particular blogpost was
(The link G gives at the end to the Weisberg & al paper doesn’t work, but the ones I give here are OK – in June 2012, anyway)

***I can’t resist pointing out that Rosenzweig’s grandparents were asylum seekers (the people formerly known as refugees) or economic migrants (as with many valuable contributors to their new host society) – and no, not ‘bogus asylum seekers’ – what’s the point of seeking bogus asylum? Or even not really (bogusly) seeking asylum?: ‘Oh, thanks for giving me refugee status, but I don’t really want it: it was just a windup, actually.” Anyone who uses that phrase needs to take a (non-subsidised) course to improve their understanding of English and logic, and then be deported (to whatever planet they came from) if they fail. [Mild trolling here]

Bennet, Diamond, Kreech &, Rosenzwieg (1964) Chemical and Anatomical Plasticity of Brain Science 146, 610-619

Melby-Lervåg, M., & Hulme, C. (2012). Is Working Memory Training Effective? A Meta-Analytic Review. Developmental Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0028228
A short writeup about  this paper: No Evidence That Working Memory Training Programs Improve General Cognitive Performance

Rosenzweig, Mark R. and Edward L. Bennett. (1996) Psychobiology of plasticity: effects of training and experience on brain and behavior Behavioural Brain Research 78 57-65

Weisberg, Deena Skolnick, Frank C. Keil, Joshua Goodstein, Elizabeth Rawson, and Jeremy R. Gray (2008) The Seductive Allure of Neuroscience Explanations Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 20:3, pp. 470–477


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