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Yehuda Ben-Yishay, psychologist who pioneered brain trauma treatment, dies at 88

Israeli-born therapist demonstrated that because adult brain is malleable, attention and reasoning can be strengthened after injury; first tested treatment on IDF veterans

Andrew Silow-Carroll is the editor-in-chief of JTA

Yehuda Ben-Yishay, shown with wife Myrna, said that memory, attention and reasoning could be relearned or strengthened after a brain injury. (Facebook/Seth Ben-Yishay via JTA)
Yehuda Ben-Yishay, shown with wife Myrna, said that memory, attention and reasoning could be relearned or strengthened after a brain injury. (Facebook/Seth Ben-Yishay via JTA)

JTA — Yehuda Ben-Yishay, a psychologist whose experience treating Israeli soldiers after the Yom Kippur War led to pioneering therapy for traumatic brain injuries, has died.

Ben-Yishay, the founder and retired director of New York University’s Rusk Holistic Day Program, died March 24 at the NYU Langone Health hospital in Manhattan. He was 88.

His “holistic cognitive therapy,” developed with colleague Leonard Diller, demonstrated that contrary to the scientific consensus of the time, the adult brain is malleable and memory, attention and reasoning could be relearned or strengthened after a brain injury.

Their program, first tested on Israeli combat veterans, applied “tightly scripted exercises in behavior modification and social skills.”

Ben-Yishay asserted that personality characteristics, like positive thinking, determined success in their program.

“People who are optimistic and benevolent are more malleable to treatment and will probably emerge more successful, as will people who have a tendency to persist in what they do, and who are willing to work hard to accomplish their objectives,” he told an interviewer in 2019.

Born in Romania and raised in Israel, Ben-Yishay served in the Israel Defense Forces before studying sociology at The Hebrew University. He later attended the New School for Social Research and received his doctorate in psychology from NYU.

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