Indiana State University Newsroom

Learning from the brain

May 16, 2012

For weeks, Leslie Barratt attempted to run. She visualized it. She thought about it. She tried it, but her body refused to obey.

"If you can, imagine somebody at the end of a marathon running. It's that kind of disjointed, ‘I'm a bunch of bones trying to coordinate; can I even get my knee up?'" she said describing her attempts.

But on a late winter day, under the fluorescent lights of Root Hall, Barratt ran. Her body no longer felt disjointed, fighting the motion. At the end of the languages, literatures and linguistics department hallway, she stopped, and her scalp tingled as if she'd just had acupuncture. So, she turned and ran back down the hallway. Again, her scalp tingled. She had regained one more motion in her life.

"A baby walks and then within days or weeks they run," she said. "They don't have to be taught to run, so it was a challenge to me because I felt it was a human thing that you can run."

Now, she runs down that hall regardless of stares from colleagues in the department she chairs. She runs because she doesn't want to forget.


Languages and cultures swirled around Barratt as she grew up. Her grandparents spoke Russian to her. The next door neighbors spoke German and Serbo-Croatian. Hungarians lived down the street.

"There was always this multiculturalism, multilingualism around," she said. "I kind of grew up with that idea that the world is a big place."

In 1959, when Barratt was 8 years old, her parents decided to expand their children's worlds beyond their town in New Jersey outside of New York City. They drove south and west across the United States to Cuernavaca, Mexico, for three months of summer vacation. In Mexico, she wore a blue and white pinafore uniform to her private school and absorbed Spanish from her classmates, teachers and house maids. By the time they left Mexico, she could understand most spoken Spanish, even if she could not always speak it.

For the return trip, the family journeyed on a ship that stopped in Cuba on its way back to New Jersey. Then within six weeks, Cuba became the focus of nightly news.

"I remember my parents doing the unthinkable and bringing the TV into the kitchen while President Kennedy talked about Cuba'r, as he pronounced it," she said with a laugh.

Her travels to the island and the swirling news after its revolution affected her.

"It brought to me very much that the world was a place that was connected and I was connected to things that happened both in and out of the U.S.," she said.

Barratt continued to make those connections to the world. At the age of 13, her family spent five weeks touring Europe. Then as a senior in high school, she lived in Belgium as a foreign exchange student and learned to speak Flemish fluently.

"It's my second home now," she said of the country.

Those experiences gave her an international focus, and she decided to study international relations in college. She found she didn't flourish in the macro economics and other such classes necessary for the major.

"I found I wasn't as passionate about those as I was about languages," she said.

When she heard of linguistics, she knew immediately that's what she wanted to study. Beloit College, where Barratt attended, had a Porter Scholar program that allowed students to design their own majors. After being accepted into the program, she studied Old English, Middle English, acoustics and psychology of language among other subjects. She went on to earn master's degrees from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Northwest Missouri State University before earning her doctorate from the University of Iowa.

Barratt came to ISU to teach in 1980. She kept studying languages and traveling while instructing courses in teaching English as a second language, linguistics and English grammar. In 2012, Barratt received the Lloyd W. Benjamin Medal for International Service from the university.

"My thought is you shouldn't step on the soil of a country without speaking enough of the language to survive," she said.

Over the years she compiled a list of 94 questions that focus on when, where and how much that she learns before traveling to a country.

"You don't need why, even though it seems like one of the basic question words," she said. But why is unimportant to finding out if a plane has changed gates or how much snack costs. "You have to give up that kind of control."

In 2011, Barratt, once again, left the question of why unasked when the unexpected happened.

"There's no real benefit that comes from trying to figure out why it happened to me or feeling bad about why it happened," she said. "The only approach that has helped is not to look at the past, but to look to the future and remain positive about what I can do."


Barratt awoke at 5 a.m. on May 3, 2011, as she usually did. She joined her husband, Will, in the hot tub as part of their morning routine. But then as she got out of the hot tub, she felt herself collapse like an accordion shutting down. Clunk, clunk, clunk, clunk sounded as her knee, hip, elbow and head fell against the deck.

"Wow, my head isn't even going to hold me," Barratt thought as she collapsed.

A concerned Will asked if she could talk and she responded that she could. He asked if she could get up, but she couldn't move. Will rushed her to the emergency room and within an hour, they knew she had a walnut-sized meningeal tumor in the right hemisphere of her brain that had sent a tendril down her motor cortex. That tumor caused her collapse and paralyzed her left side. Two days later, doctors operated, removing the tumor. A week after her collapse, Barratt moved to a rehabilitation center to learn how to walk and write again.

Through the process of relearning, Barratt has let her brain teach her as it heals.

At first, her brain registered her left foot as cold even though others felt its warmth. She felt as if her toes had been amputated and she walked with a limp. With continued therapy, including acupuncture, feeling and life has returned to her foot. Toenails that refused to grow eventually came to life and a small cut that refused to heal closed.

And her brain began to remember past injuries to her left foot. One day, she felt as if she had glass stuck in it and tore off her sock to find nothing. Another time, her foot swelled remembering another injury. Another time her big toe throbbed remembering a stubbing that left it black and injured for weeks.

"It was unwinding its memories," she said of the pain. "At the same time, the good news was it was reconnecting."Almost 11 months after the surgery, Barratt has returned to her full life.

"I still have holes in my head and dips and metal clips," she said rubbing her head through her short, curling brown hair. "I'm a phrenologist's dream."


As her brain has healed, Barratt has taken notes on the process, learning from what it can teach her. She discovered type size and font matter to injured brains.

"Small type, serif fonts, bright or colored paper and colored type all put an added tax on my brain right now so that it simply refuses to read what is written, and I suspect this may be true for young children and for second language learners," she wrote in an article for Indiana Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages members in the first few months of her recovery.

Barratt found it took time for writing to become instinctive again. She found it easier to write in newly learned Thai and Hindi then to write in her native English. But just as life returned to her foot in the months following surgery, so did her writing flow more easily.

But she knows when her brain has had enough stimulation, when it needs to rest.

"I can feel when I've got cognitive load," she said. "Physically, I could feel the sensation when I'm taxed. My head starts tingling, and it's ‘OK, you better stop. You've had enough.'"

The experience has helped her identify with her students who may be struggling to understand a concept or to learn a language. She no longer thinks the student isn't trying hard enough or that it is too difficult for the student.

"Now, I think let's figure out a way because obviously this is taxing their brain," she said. "I'm seeing that it's a physical thing. Not everything is a lack of motivation or a lack of trying."

Barratt watches for her own cognitive load even as she runs through her life schedule of teaching classes, leading conferences and traveling throughout the United States and world. Now, she has additional messages to share with students and other language professors from what her brain has taught her.

"It's been a fascinating journey. It really has," she said. "I feel very fortunate to have gone through it."

Photo: - Maps of world countries adorn the wall in the Indiana State University classroom of Leslie Barratt, chair and professor of languages, literatures, and linguistics. (ISU/Tony Campbell)

Photo: - Jack Maynard, Indiana State University provost and vice president for academic affairs, presented Leslie Barratt, chair and professor of languages, literatures, and linguistics, with the Lloyd W. Benjamin III Medal for International Service during the university's 2012 International Programs and Services Banquet. (ISU/Tony Campbell)

Photo: - Leslie Barratt, chair and professor of languages, literatures, and linguistics at Indiana State University, poses in front of the flag of China after receiving the Lloyd W. Benjamin III Medal for International Service during the university's 2012 International Programs and Services Banquet. (ISU/Tony Campbell)

Photo: - Leslie Barratt, professor and chair of languages, literatures and linguistics at Indiana State University, holds a walnut to indicate the size of a tumor removed from the right hemisphere of her brain in 2011. The tumor caused her to have to re-learn how to walk and talk. (ISU/Tony Campbell)

Media contact and writer: Jennifer Sicking, associate director of media relations, Office of Communications and Marketing, Indiana State University, 812-237-7972 or