Have you reached a plateau and can’t figure out how to get to the next level? You don’t see improvement no matter what you do? Pioneering methods in stroke rehabilitation point the way to mastering new skills and information quickly and better than before. All you need to do is create an environment that gives you no choice but to improve.
After Pedro Bach-y-Rita, a renowned Catalan poet, suffered a stroke that left his face and half his body paralyzed as well as unable to speak, his son George made him crawl in his garden on all fours like a dog. When the neighbors began to complain, he removed his father from public view, making him crawl around inside the house.
Was George committing elder abuse? No, he was just ahead of his time.
Before the crawling routine, Pedro had gone through a typical four-week stroke rehabilitation program where he made minimal progress. The year was 1959, and the idea that the brain could change was decades away from becoming mainstream. Pedro’s son George was a psychiatrist, and although not trained in rehabilitation, intuitively realized that there must be a better way.
Even today, many stroke rehabilitation programs find ways to compensate for the stroke victim’s limitations, assuming that full or even significant recovery is out of bounds. Yet, in 1959, George decided instead to try to help his father recover through baby steps – literally.
Babies learn to crawl before they learn to walk, and so that is what he had his father do.
Pedro was forced to crawl with his weak arm and shoulder against the wall. He would try to catch marbles with his weak hand that his son would roll on the floor, and then try to pick up coins with his weak hand. He worked incessantly on improving his abilities using the damaged side of his body.
What happened? As Dr. Norman Doidge relays in his groundbreaking book, The Brain That Changes Itself, Pedro Bach-y-Rita died of a heart attack seven years later at the age of 72. At the time, he was standing on the summit of a 9,000 foot mountain in Columbia that he had just climbed.
An autopsy revealed that 97% of the nerves between Pedro’s cerebral cortex and spine had been destroyed by the stroke and never recovered. Instead, Pedro’s brain had reorganized itself, with the healthy part taking over vital functions that allowed him to again live a full life.
Today, the principle of neuroplasticity – that the brain can change, even significantly – is well established. And yet, from rehabilitation to mental health to education to the corporate world, so many continue to view limits as firmly fixed, at best acknowledging the possibility of incremental progress.
But there's substantial and ever-growing evidence that the brain can transform itself in miraculous ways. It would take several books, well beyond this article, to describe the myriad ways we now know the brain can change. For an overview I highly recommend The Brain That Changes Itself and Dr. Doidge’s excellent follow-up book, The Brain’s Way of Healing.
For now, I want to cover one practical principle of neuroplasticity that comes out of Pedro Bach-y-Rita’s rehabilitation program. If a man who was half paralyzed and unable to speak was able to go back to full-time teaching within a year and then climb a 9,000 foot mountain, what might you accomplish using this same principle?
Not to worry. I am not going to ask you to crawl around on the floor, retrieve marbles or pick up coins (unless or course, you want to).
I am going to ask you to use the idea behind these actions – the “no way out” principle.
What Pedro Bach-y-Rita did, in effect, was to work single-mindedly on his weaknesses without allowing himself to compensate for them. Had he picked up the marbles with his functional hand when it became too difficult to do so with his damaged hand, he would not have improved. By insisting on using his stroke-damaged limbs, he rehabilitated them.
Was it easy? Of course not.
But in the long run, it was much easier than the typical rehabilitation program that assumes minimal progress and then compensates for the rest. Pedro’s initial attempts were, no doubt, unimaginably difficult. But that difficulty yielded relatively quickly, allowing him to live a full life. Had he gone the more standard route and compensated for his weaknesses, then years later he would have been sitting in a wheelchair rather than climbing a mountain.
How to Use the “No Way Out” Principle to Make Massive Progress
The “No Way Out” principle works for anything you are trying to improve. It need not be something as dramatic as stroke rehabilitation. Here’s how I used it for something far more trivial:
When I began learning Hebrew, I wanted to be able to type in Hebrew on my American laptop. The standard way to do this would be to buy a set of Hebrew keyboard stickers, attaching them to the appropriate keys so they can be seen next to the English letter you would type using the same key.
The problem with that approach is that you constantly look at the letters on the keyboard to determine which key you should strike. It will be a long time – if ever – before you can type fluently without looking.
Fortunately, it was around this time that I had read the story of Pedro Bach-y-Rita’s dramatic recovery. So adapting his model, I did not attach the Hebrew letters to the keyboard. Instead, I reviewed a chart for about 15 minutes that showed each Hebrew letter’s position on the keyboard. Then I threw the chart away. I never looked at it again.
No way out.
I started typing. It was a slow process as I struggled to remember where each letter was on the keyboard. But I refused to look at anything that would give me a hint. That would be compensating. That would ensure that I never fully learned the letters.
Instead, each time I got stuck, I would fish around the keyboard until I found the correct letter. In doing so, I began to remember easily the location of each letter. Within a few days, I could type in Hebrew fluently, knowing exactly where each letter was.
For anyone who has learned to speak another language, my experience won't sound surprising. Ask anyone who speaks another language well, and they will tell you that they immersed in it. They spent a period of time where they had to converse in the language and could not resort to their native tongue. Meanwhile, those who do resort to their native tongue when things get difficult – those who compensate – still aren’t fluent years later.
From a neuroscientific perspective, whenever you forge ahead singly on the new skill without giving yourself an out to do something else that’s more comfortable, your brain rewires itself. It creates new connections and can even enlist previously uninvolved areas of the brain to accomplish the new skill.
From a practical perspective, you are reaping the benefits of focusing intensely and not giving into distraction. Pedro Bach-y-Rita focused only on the stroke-damaged side of the body, not allowing the ready ability of his non-damaged side to distract him and interfere with his rehabilitation.
Similarly, when you don’t resort to your native tongue while learning a new language, you don’t allow your comfort with your native tongue to distract you from the new language. I didn’t allow a keyboard chart to distract me from finding the letters on my own.
You can use the “No Way Out” principle whenever you want to learn something quickly, or even change a habit. Let’s say you’re one of the many people who pepper your speech with the syllable “uh” – which can be off-putting if you are tasked with giving presentations, or even in everyday conversation.
You could sort of work on it for years, noticing that you do it, and then falling into the old patterns anyway. Or you could give yourself no way out. You could spend an hour each day (in front of the mirror works really well, but is not required) just talking and specifically not allowing yourself to say “uh” no matter what.
At first, you will have long pauses in your speech and find it difficult to get going again without using the habitual “uh.” If you diligently stick with it, after a few days the pauses will be much shorter and speaking without “uh” will be much more comfortable. Within a week or so, you’ll be able to start doing this when speaking with others, and a few weeks later, you’ll wonder how you ever managed to say “uh” while speaking.
If you want to work on your tennis backhand, you can insist on using your backhand exclusively. It will improve in a hurry.
If you want to memorize information, you can actively recite as much as you can without referring to the source material. You can then briefly review the source material and try again. By spending the majority of your time on active recall without the crutch of looking at the material whenever you forget, you will soon find yourself learning information at lightning speed.
Pick a skill, subject or piece of information you’ve always wanted to learn. Ask yourself: How could I practice this and not give myself a way out?
The initial period will be hard as you and your brain struggle with the unfamiliar. If you can push through and resist the distraction of using a way out, the task will soon get easier, and you’ll amaze yourself at how quickly you master it.