Apotheosis episode 41: The plastic brain. Illustration of a human brain with ropes tied at either end, stretching it out. Project Indra logo mark in bottom left corner.

Episode 41: The plastic brain

Ryan D Thompson Neuroscience, Perspectives, Skills, Transformation

Key ideas

Unlike your eye color or your height, your brain can change over your lifetime. Through intentional effort, you can enhance your mental capacities – while inattention can cause your skills to wither.

  • Up until a few decades ago, science generally believed that the brain you were born with was the brain you’re stuck with. It was believed that once you hit adulthood, your brain stopped growing. 
  • We now know this is not the case. Research into neuroplasticity demonstrates the many ways that the brain can change, even well into adulthood.
  • If you excelled at math as a youth, the brain’s plasticity means you can lose your capacity if you stop practicing those skills. This is the neuroplasticity principle of “use it or lose it.”
  • The converse is also true. If you were terrible at math, you might never become a mathematician. But you can train your brain to overcome its deficits – the principle of “use it and improve it.”


In 1951, a woman named Barbara Arrowsmith Young was born with an “asymmetrical” brain. She was brilliant in some capacities, such as visual memory. But she also had some extreme learning disabilities. For one, the part of the brain devoted to speech didn’t work properly, so she couldn’t speak clearly. She also had impaired spatial perception, which caused her to constantly run into things. 

While on one hand, she could adeptly pick up on non-verbal cues and memorize long lists of facts, she suffered in many other areas. She couldn’t distinguish between right and left. She couldn’t understand anything in real time; instead, she had to mentally rehash conversations in her head afterwards to piece together. To pass her classes from elementary school onwards, she had to read homework assignments dozens of times before she could piece together any meaning.

At the time, little was known about these kinds of brain conditions. There wasn’t any support for kids with special needs, as the idea of “learning disabilities” was not yet a commonly understood challenge. Her first grade teacher at one point told her parents that she essentially had no chance of catching up with her peers.

And yet, despite these significant impairments, Arrowsmith Young went on to become a noted educator, making important contributions to the advancement of treatments for learning disabilities.

How did a woman who was born with disabilities that most people would write off as incurable go on to not only overcome those disabilities – but to become an influential educator? The answer lies in the kinds of treatments she devised to exercise deficient parts of the brain – exercises that worked based on the revolutionary idea that the brain can change itself. Also known as neuroplasticity.

This episode is part of a series on personal transformation. The last episode in this series looked at the stages of adult development, and how we can continue to grow throughout our lives to meet increasingly more difficult challenges. This episode will look at the concept of neuroplasticity, without which that growth wouldn’t be possible. Our brain’s capacity to change throughout our lives, even as we become rigid and over-serious adults, means that we are never stuck. We can constantly improve.

We spend a great deal of effort trying to change the world around us. We try to change our family members, our friends, our neighbors, and our societies. But if we have any hope of influencing change outside, first we must learn to change ourselves. And that change must take place in our brains – the most powerful tool we possess as humans.

The very idea that our brains can change is relatively new. During Barbara Arrowsmith Young’s troubled childhood in the 50s, very few scientists took seriously the idea that our brains change in measurable ways. It makes sense to believe in a fixed brain. After all, many aspects of our physiology don’t change much after a certain point. Your eye color is what it is, and always will be. Once you hit adulthood, you’re not going to get any taller. Disappointing, no doubt, if your dreams of a career as a professional basketball player were hindered by your height. 

Even our unique forms of intelligence or aptitudes don’t seem to measurably change as we get older. If you weren’t good at math growing up, you don’t suddenly become a mathematical genius when you hit your 20s. We were directly or indirectly taught that the brain you were born with is the brain you’re stuck with.

However, unlike your eyes or skeletal structure, your brain can change. Some areas can grow, while others wither. You can exercise parts of your brain to attain legendary capabilities… but then you can lose it all if you stop training those skills.

As Arrowsmith Young discovered through her own experience and subsequent research on learning disabilities, we can stretch our brains to entirely new dimensions.

But she wouldn’t arrive at that point without nearly hitting the bottom. By her late twenties, she grew weary of living life in a constant fog of confusion. There didn’t seem to exist any treatments for her learning disabilities. She was nearly overcome with despair, to the point of considering ways to end her life. 

And then one day she came across a study that stimulating the brains of rats led to physical changes in their brains – the study demonstrated neuroplasticity in rats. This finding was revolutionary, at the least for her. 

Newly inspired, she set out to design a training program that would stimulate her own brain. Most of the programs for learning disabilities focused on a method called “compensation,” which strengthened areas of the brain that worked well to compensate for areas that were weaker. Instead, she designed a series of exercises that would focus on the weak functions – and proceeded to lock herself in a room for weeks to practice these exercises. One of them involved reading clock faces. Since she couldn’t recognize symbols, she also couldn’t tell time. After weeks of intensive practice and progressive increase in difficulty of the exercises, she was soon able to read clock time faster than people with “normal” brains. Encouraged by this progress, she continued to design exercises to strengthen other deficits. Soon she was experiencing life as if for the first time, living in the moment, not constantly five steps behind everyone else.

She went on to start the Arrowsmith School in Toronto, serving children with learning disabilities. She developed an approach that would first assess specific brain deficits and then devise exercises to target those disabilities. It must be said that her approach has been somewhat controversial, as a number of neuroscientists have described her claims as lacking scientific rigor. The limited controlled studies that have been conducted weren’t conclusive. 

Yet her own story certainly offers a compelling testimony for the brain’s capacity to change. Despite that Arrowsmith Young spent the first thirty or so years of her life with a brain that could barely function in the world, through intensive effort and persistence she essentially rewired her own brain – and now helps others do the same.

Now, at this point, you might be inclined to think that neuroplasticity is a good thing, since you can expand your mental capacities and shed unhelpful patterns of thinking. But the truth is that neuroplasticity is neither good nor bad – it is neutral. It simply means that our brains can change.

We also must contend with the flip side of change: that our brain functions can get worse. For example, when I was young, I was really good at math. I could pick up complex math with little effort. I was even on the math team in high school. But once I hit college, I eventually stopped studying math in all its forms. With each passing year, my ability to make calculations in my head diminished. And soon enough, I found those math skills departing my brain seemingly for good.

My decline in math skills points to a core principle of neuroplasticity: use it or lose it. If you don’t continue to exercise your gray matter, your mental muscles will atrophy. It’s not as if you’ll lose neurons, but rather that some other functions will take up the space. 

In terms of the practical value of neuroplasticity for leaders, Arrowsmith Young’s story offers some guidance. Her intensive exercises connect with three of the practical principles of neuroplasticity that appear in the literature: use it and improve it, specificity, and repetition. 

First, the principle use it and improve it” is straightforward enough: you can exercise specific parts of your brain like a muscle. If you are determined enough to change, it is possible to do so. The exercised part of the brain will demonstrate physiological growth in response to your efforts. For example, studies of London cab drivers demonstrate that the act of memorizing a tangled labyrinth of 25,000 streets produces a larger than normal hippocampus, a part of the brain crucial for long-term memory.

This principle connects closely to two other principles: specificity and repetition.

Bruce Lee once said, “I don’t fear the man who practiced ten thousand different kicks, I fear the man who practiced ONE kick, ten thousand times.” When we practice a specific skill over and over again, constantly seeking to refine and improve on that one skill, our brains respond. 

Malcolm Gladwell popularized the idea of 10,000 hours – a commonly cited timeframe of practicing a skill that leads to complete mastery. If you want to master anything, you must put in the hours. And those hours should retain a laser-like focus on a specific skill or capacity. Doing so is no doubt extremely difficult in our hyper-distracting world. Many of us find it nearly impossible to choose just one thing and to spend countless hours drilling away at that one thing.

Barbara Arrowsmith Young applied this principle of targeting specific parts of her brain, training those skills she lacked most but also needed most. Likewise, if we can identify the specific skills that will be most impactful for our growth, we can train our brains to master those skills – changing our brains and most likely our lives in the process. 

That’s all for this episode. I hope that you find your path to 10,000 hours and mastery of the skills you need most to succeed as a leader. Join me again next week for another episode on looking at the idea of darkness in a whole new light. Until the next time, be well!


Podcast soundtrack credit:

Our Story Begins Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License