Home » Books in General » Dyslexia Can Deliver Benefits – With reading difficulties can come other cognitive strengths

Dyslexia Can Deliver Benefits – With reading difficulties can come other cognitive strengths

27 February 2015

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.

. . . .

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.

. . . .

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.

. . . .

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.

. . . .

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.

Books in General

16 Comments to “Dyslexia Can Deliver Benefits – With reading difficulties can come other cognitive strengths”

  1. I’m weary of these “scientific” studies that purport to find some silver lining or unexpected advantage to things such as depression, ADHD, dyslexia, etc.

    There may indeed be useful skills that are the flip side of these biochemical imbalances, but the disadvantages are very real.

    My mother suffers from dyslexia and was never able to adequately complete the paperwork that was part of her job when she had an active nursing career. She was a great nurse, but the paperwork felled her every time.

    She often misdials telephone numbers. She often makes arithmetic errors when balancing her checkbook. These errors – directly caused by her dislexia, no matter how careful she was or is – have real and negative consequences.

    My son suffers from sensory integration disability and ADHD. He’s a great kid and super intelligent. He tends to have a lot of compassion for others who struggle with various challenges, because he has struggles of his own. But he misses social cues because of his disabilities and isn’t able to do schoolwork that requires him to draw maps or diagrams, because he doesn’t perceive spacial relationships accurately. There are very real and serious downsides to his disorders.

    It feels like many of these “silver lining” studies are implying that because there is a silver lining, it makes up for the disadvantages. It doesn’t.

    • The advantages may be good for us as a species – they fill some little otherwise-empty niche in human knowledge – but they are very hard on the individuals.

      The kind of super-focus that allows a scientist to be good may also make that person a distracted parent or workaholic, but nobody want to deny them children. Ditto Wall St. moguls (though I have less compassion for their compulsions).

      You do what you can with what you’re given, but it doesn’t mean you have to like it. Surmounting obstacles is hard work.

      • The advantages may be good for us as a species – they fill some little otherwise-empty niche in human knowledge – but they are very hard on the individuals.

        So true. I’m easier with accepting that I have the gifts and limitations that I have, and that I must work with what I’ve got (and also with what I’ve not got).

        But it’s much harder to accept that for my children. I still long to be able to save them from the most destructive possibilities that roam human existence. Some things I can save them from, but as they grow older, the edges of my power draw in, with less and less under my control. It hurts my heart when I see my child hurt.

    • I hear you JM. And I love to hear about your love for your boy. Thank you. I have dyslexia, or as I joke, lexdixia… school was hell. Absolute hell. Couldnt memorize, therefor couldnt spell, couldnt make the grade in comprehension in most any subject. The shames rained down, still make me cringe. But poetry, yes! The noun-sy short-short stories of poetry, that I could master. Learning to write by cadence instead of diagramatically, yes, many of us who have this variance find ways to make it through even tho unconventional to say the least.

      To each his own, to each her own… I love your attitude toward your son. In our time, that at least there was at least one something we loved and one something we were good at, despite what others say about us which back in the day was often brutal condemnation of the whole person, as there was little understanding of different ways of perception, rather only a onesize fits all idea that only some could fit into and shine—that one thing was saving grace.

      • It sounds like you had a tough time. My heart goes out to you. I’m glad you had “one thing you loved and were good at.” And that you were able to use it as anchor and harbor in the storm.

  2. Human abilities–physical, mental, emotional–are a spectrum and they all come at a price. I agree that the whole “differently abled” political correctness is just that, political, but the scientific studies do serve a purpose. Our brains are biological computers that we barely understand and a lot of what non-scientists hear is misinformation or made-up claptrap (like the undying myth of 10% utilization).

    Understanding how the brains of savants, eidetics and other high performers, athletes, and, yes, dyslexics, operate is vital to someday understanding exactly how we operate our own brains. We can never have too many facts as long as they are really and truly factual and not made up. Good facts and bad.

    Now my own experience, from a couple of dyslexic friends (one is also dyscalculic) is that dyslexia hasn’t stopped either from being avid readers or high performers in technical fields, or having active imaginations and questing minds. They’re both brilliant and nobody would even guess they have the condition if they don’t volunteer it. Getting where they are wasn’t easy but they certainly rose to the challenges of life a whole lot better than many (most, really) without the condition.

  3. ” (like the undying myth of 10% utilization). ”

    Next you’re going to tell me the tooth fairy is crap… sheesh.

  4. have it, and love JM your love for your boy. And your clear widening that way forward for him. That all could have such in a loving and understanding parent re such variances many of us have.

    • Thanks, USAF.

      I adore my son. He is one of the most warm-hearted and open-to-others people I have ever known. He amazes me!

      But sometimes I get scared for him, because the institutional school setting is still very inflexible. Although individual teachers are often able to give him the extra support he needs, the institution as a whole is very limited in its ability to support those who don’t fit its systems. As he approaches high school, I worry.

      • I get it JM, have a grown child and a grandchild who also carry what I do. My support to you; just keep watching over as you do, like a hawk, hold teachers to the helping ways you know, gently but surely ‘teaching the teachers ‘is part of the work now, being in close touch with principals and putting them on your side, ever finding the things your boy can shine in.

        For my family, it is exactly that, what your boy sounds like he may have his deepest talents in too, service to others, helping others esp others with special needs, being a shining example of integrity. Every start of school year go bond with Principal. If you have a spouse and grandparents, take them with you to Principal’s office. If not those, then well placed friends. Letting people know there is an entire support system for one’s offspring, that it is not just asking school to be sole support, but in tandem support, will go a long way.

        I wish I had known as a child so I coud have taught my fearful immigrant and refugee parents, what I know now about how to move strategically with schools to get the most of what is gettable for everyone who is ‘different.’ Which is actually everyone, lol. But many dont yet know how ‘different’ and ‘unfittable to be round peg/square opening’ they really are. But all will learn, esp as adults and go through their thoes. Your boy is just learning the ropes of real life earlier than most of his peers. That is not a bad thing. It actually puts one ahead in maturity.

        Here too, because of the warm heartedness, we have had to teach that not all people are ‘your friends’, that there are users, etc., and here’s how to tell. The here’s how to tell, we are still working on, as the kids will give the shirts off their backs to anyone who says they have need even tho they already are ‘shirt collectors’…

        I love how you speak about your son. You are walking with him, just right JM.

        • Thanks, USAF. Your kind words mean a lot.

          I am still learning how to navigate the school system on behalf of my son. We were “lucky” in elementary school, because the teachers and the principal were incredible people, really willing to go the extra mile.

          But that changed in upper elementary school, and it took me too long to get up to speed. Too long, in that my son really suffered while I tried to figure out how to navigate the system filled with some helpful people and some people actively trying to make sure my son did not get extra support.

          I’m a lot more savvy now, but still tend to feel behind the curve, as though I learn how to navigate each bit just after I leave it behind and start the next bit.

          One thing I now understand: communicate early and often. We met with the guidance counselor for middle school 5 months before the school year would start (when my son was still finishing his year in upper elementary) and I think it really helped. And I am now talking with the counselor about plans for next year. She is already thinking about which teachers would be a good fit for him.

          But, yikes. Whenever something gets by me – and things do – my son is the one who pays, and that hurts me more than anything else. I can’t help wishing I were stronger and smarter for his sake.

          • You have it exactly right “One thing I now understand: communicate early and often.” yes and more yes. And you might be the one to institute a ‘non bullying’ program awareness in the school also. So many kids need that protection. Dont let anyone tell you bullying/denigration/disrespect/endangering is the real world. It isnt. People would have their a–es fired at work in a NYC second for doing such. Keep on. Youre exactly on the right road.

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