From Scientific American:
Many of the etchings by artist M. C. Escher appeal because they depict scenes that defy logic. His famous “Waterfall” shows a waterwheel powered by a cascade pouring down from a brick flume. Water turns the wheel and is redirected uphill back to the mouth of the flume, where it can once again pour over the wheel in an endless cycle. The drawing shows us an impossible situation that violates nearly every law of physics.
In 2003 a team of psychologists led by Catya von Károlyi of the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire made a discovery using such images. When the researchers asked people to pick out impossible figures from similarly drawn illustrations, they found that participants with dyslexia were among the fastest at this task.
Dyslexia is often called a learning disability. And it can indeed present learning challenges. Although its effects vary widely, some children with dyslexia read so slowly that it would typically take them months to read the same number of words that their peers read in a day. Therefore, the fact that people with this difficulty were so adept at rapidly picking out the impossible figures puzzled von Károlyi.
The researchers had stumbled on a potential upside to dyslexia, one that investigators have just begun to understand. Scientists had long suspected dyslexia might be linked to creativity, but laboratory evidence for this was rare.
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The research hints that people with dyslexia exhibit strengths for seeing the big picture (both literally and figuratively) that others tend to miss. And if this is true, the work reinforces the larger idea that differences that people might perceive as a source of difficulty in some domains can become a source of strength in other contexts.
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Biochemist Christopher Tonkin of the biotechnical company Biogen Idec, for example, has long noticed a sensitivity to “things out of place,” which he ascribes to his dyslexia. Tonkin is easily bothered by the weeds among the flowers in his garden, and his awareness of visual anomalies has aided his research.
Our studies hint that dyslexia may be an asset to many scientists. For example, in 2012 we asked 15 college students to search for specific objects in busy photographs of natural scenes. Some of these scenes appeared repeatedly, which allowed us to measure how well students could learn the layout of such images. Dyslexic individuals needed fewer repetitions to master these searches than their nondyslexic peers, but only for blurred images. Such skills could translate well in medicine, for example, where physicians compare multiple diagnostic x-rays over time to identify tumors or growths.
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Although we do not know precisely what would cause these advantages, we do have an understanding of how literacy changes the brain. An avid reader might read for an hour or more daily, for years on end. This specialized repetitive training, requiring split-second control over eye movements and perception, can shape the visual system to make some pathways more efficient than others.
Collège de France cognitive neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene and his colleagues have identified some of these changes. In a study published in 2014 they asked 63 adults with varying degrees of literacy to rapidly identify whether pairs of letters and pictures oriented in various ways were the same or different. Curiously, when the pairings depicted mirror reversals of one another, people with greater literacy struggled to recognize the similarity more than their less literate counterparts.
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Strong readers are necessarily skilled at focusing visual attention. But a trade-off is involved: when focusing on detail, the brain suppresses awareness of its surroundings. Poor readers may be unable to focus attention in this way. They would therefore be more globally aware, which could lead to advantages for performing tasks, such as discriminating impossible figures.
Link to the rest at Scientific American and thanks to Suzie for the tip.