What is Symbol Relations?

Now that we’re offering the At-Home Cognitive Intensive Program, which targets the Symbol Relations function, you may be wondering about this cognitive capacity and the exercise we use to make it stronger. Many of our students say this exercise, more commonly known as “Clocks”, is one of their favorites and almost everyone has a story about how it improved life in some way. That’s because Clocks is a masterpiece in terms of brain training.

Why Clocks?

Photo by Black ice

Reading an analog clock was one of the many things Barbara Arrowsmith-Young struggled with as a young woman. We now know that being able to tell the time is an important indicator skill. As Howard Eaton, founder of the Eaton Arrowsmith schools, noted, if a child can’t read a clock face, “it often means they will also struggle with reading comprehension and math problem solving, as these achievement abilities also require the ability to analyze and synthesize many concepts simultaneously.”  Barbara experienced those problems, plus many of the classic signs of a weak Symbol Relations function, including:

  • difficulty keeping up with the speed of lectures or following conversations
  • an inability to understand anything that isn’t literal: jokes, sarcasm, and riddles 
  • needing extra time and repetition to complete tasks
  • an overwhelming sense of uncertainty 

During her graduate research, Barbara read about the work of Aleksandr Luria, a Russian neuropsychologist. She was struck by his work with Lyova Zazetsky, a soldier with a brain injury that left him with severe gaps in his ability to make sense of the world. To Barbara, those gaps felt eerily familiar. Zazetsky had been wounded by a bullet to the head. It damaged the left occipito-parietal region of his brain, an area that operates as an intersection, connecting and processing information coming from the outside world and other parts of the brain. Like Barbara, post-injury Zazetsky struggled to tell time on an analog clock. She began to suspect that her own left occipito-parietal region, what we now call the Symbol Relations area, wasn’t functioning well either. 




“Diagram showing the lobes of the brain CRUK 308.svg” by Cancer Research UK is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0




Then Barbara found the work of Mark Rosenzweig, an American psychologist whose research showed that rats could physically rewire their brains in response to stimulation. With this revelation Barbara wondered if she could devise an exercise that could stimulate and rewire the occipito-parietal region of a human brain. If rats could do it, why couldn’t humans? Cue the first version of Clocks, a series of hand-written clock-face flashcard exercises. Barbara experimented on herself. 

The Fog Lifted

In her memoir, she recalls, “I would do the exercise every day for up to twelve hours a day, and as I got better, I made

the flashcards more complex. I cannot describe my exhilaration when I began to feel the result of all this work. Points of logic became clear to me, and elements of grammar now made sense, as did math. Conversations that I had always had to replay to comprehend now unfolded in real-time. The fog dissipated then lifted. It was gone for good.” 


Those hand-written flashcards evolved into a computer program that’s helped thousands of students live better lives. You can read some of their stories on our blog.

A Confident Brains student works on “Colcks” with his family cheering him on silently

Alessandro Marchi –  A Brain Boost Story 

By all accounts, Alessandro Marchi has a great life. The 50 year-old Italian runs his own successful music production company, has a lovely family, and has lived as an expat, most recently in Singapore and Thailand, for over 20 years. But Alessandro knew things could be better. “For me, the worst thing you could ask me to do is read out loud. I had an undiagnosed dyslexia problem. I knew that my whole life, but I never addressed it.” He also struggled with writing. As a child in Italy, he intuitively wrote with his left hand, but “when I was about to start primary school, they made me write with my right hand. When I got to grade 6 they made me go back to my left hand. My writing was horrible, of course. It was something I learned to live with.” Like many people who grew up when learning differences weren’t on the radar, Alessandro learned to cope, and cope well. 


When he learned about the Arrowsmith program available at United World College Thailand, the school his children attend, he was wary at first. Looking into it, he began to wonder, “If it helps people with learning challenges, what will it do to people who are in the so-called ‘normal range’? I saw many children benefiting from the program, and I thought, ‘What if I had a go? Would it help me?’ ” 

When Confident Brains opened an adult program, Alessandro thought, “Why not invest six months in myself and try this thing?” He ended up enrolling in a full year for three sessions a day. The assessment results surprised but galvanized him. “It’s shocking at first but then you think, certainly, there’s a chance to improve these things. At that moment, I didn’t know what to expect but I trusted that it would have a positive impact.” 


A few months in, he felt that impact. Although he was able to avoid reading out loud in public, he couldn’t say no when his kids asked for a bedtime story. Stumbling through words and misreading, he described it as, “a painful experience for me and for them.” One night, his kids asked him to read for them. “Pages into the story, I realized I WAS READING ALOUD with no difficulties! I was reading a whole story aloud… and well!” he recalls, laughing. “I was in disbelief. I didn’t say anything. Maybe this is a fluke.” It  wasn’t. It took Alessandro a few days of reading more easily to process the shift. “It was completely night and day. I realized how big this was for me, how big of a burden had lifted. I was so impressed that it was happening. That was definitely when I realized, ok, this [Arrowsmith] is really helping me.” 


With this boost, he worked even harder. “I had a very gung-ho approach. It was like going to the gym for me. I enjoyed it very much. I was competing with myself, my own limitations. Trying to do as much as possible every day. It’s a time and financial commitment so I wanted to see the most coming from it.”


As a Formula One fan, he really enjoyed the Symbol Relations exercise. “You feel like you’re a fighter pilot or formula one driver. You need to make a perfect lap in order to master. You make one single mistake, and you spoil the whole lap.” Alessandro began to notice more changes. “It’s as if you’ve received a boost. If you’re running, you can run faster. It’s easier. The organization of my thought and speech is much more fluid. It’s easier to find the words. I am more strategic. I think before I act. My learning is faster. I’m much more precise in my music playing. There is more clarity.” His wife, Sonia, noticed subtle differences too. “He’s less frustrated overall. A bit nicer to be around. Less frustrated about little things.” 


He occasionally thinks about how life would have been different if he’d had access to something like Arrowsmith as a child. “Oh my goodness. It’s the big what if. I would be a completely different person.” Still, Alessandro is happy he found it later in life. “I’m grateful for doing something for myself, for giving myself this opportunity. That’s the thing about Arrowsmith. Once you discover there is incredible potential, the question you ask immediately is, ‘why are people not going crazy for this thing?’ It really can straighten up your thought process. It’s for everyone. It’s a very effective brain gym.”


Asked if he would try reading out loud in public now, Alessandro recalls a memory of going to a seminar and being asked to read in front of the audience. “I knew it was over my limits. I said, ‘Sorry, I’m dyslexic, I would never do that.’” Today he feels differently. “I would give it a shot. I would be nervous speaking in front of an audience. It would scare the s— out of me but I would give it a shot.”