Dyslexia and Visuospatial Processing Strengths:
New Research Sheds Light
By Carolyn D. Cowen
Do people with dyslexia have superior “visuospatial processing” abilities compared to those without dyslexia?
It is an intriguing question. Anecdotal reports and clinical observations dating back to the earliest days of dyslexia’s discovery1 support the popular belief that dyslexia has upsides, particularly in visuospatial domains. Now, science is providing tantalizing new hints that might move us closer to answering this question with support from a body of empirical work.
The notion that dyslexia imparts cognitive advantages has become almost an article of faith within the dyslexia community—a pillar for a movement that celebrates dyslexia’s strengths and asserts that the brains of people with dyslexia are different, not defective (e.g., see Dyslexia Advantage website and book by same title in references). This notion can be a lifeline of hope buoying the spirits of parents and students drowning in the academic challenges that typically overwhelm learners with dyslexia (especially in industrial-era-designed schools). Anyone who has struggled with adversity and challenge knows that hope, the promise of reaching a distant beckoning shore, can make a difference.
The idea that dyslexia might have an upside, at least for some, has gained traction beyond the dyslexia community. For example, in his new book, David and Goliath (2013), Malcolm Gladwell—author of popular books such as The Tipping Point (2000)—devoted an entire chapter to dyslexia as an example of a “desirable difficulty.” Gladwell’s thesis in a nutshell: Adversity can be an advantage; society needs the people who emerge from difficulties with powerful compensatory abilities. To support his conclusions about dyslexia’s advantages,2 Gladwell cites the survey of entrepreneurs conducted by Cass Business School Professor, Julie Logan (2009), in which 35% identified themselves as having dyslexia. (See New York Times article.)
Not everyone embraces the “dyslexia upside hypothesis.” Some cite negative consequences in promoting the Pollyanna-ish notion that dyslexia is a desirable gift. (Maybe the “gift of dyslexia” is more like a “white-elephant gift” in a “Yankee Swap” than a truly desirable gift?) Some take issue with perpetuating the unrealistic idea that all people with dyslexia have special talents. (We can’t all live in Lake Wobegon and be above average.) Others argue that the appalling lack of identification, intervention, and accommodation—particularly among low-income children with dyslexia—must be our single-minded focus and everything else pales compared to that. (See post and links from Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity [scroll to post "From the Desk of Sally Shawitz"] for more about such concerns.)
Still others point out that empirical evidence directly supporting a talent-dyslexia hypothesis, while intriguing, remains pretty darn thin. (See March 2012 Examiner article by Cowen and Sherman.)
On the empirical-evidence front, though, there is news from Haskins Laboratories. The ins and outs of the dyslexia-is/is-not-an-advantage discussion are beyond the scope of this article, but a sense of the issues touched on above is important context for appreciating this news.3
New Haskins Research
A new study conducted by Haskins researchers examined the cognitive and neural bases of visuospatial processing abilities for different kinds of materials in adolescents with dyslexia compared to typically developing peers. In a nutshell, using both cognitive tasks and functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), researchers found the following:
- Behaviorally, individuals with dyslexia “showed a visuospatial processing advantage (shorter latencies and equivalent accuracy) on a geometric figure processing task” (Impossible Figures) “similar to findings shown in two previous published studies.”
- Cortical and subcortical fMRI activation patterns (particularly in frontal-striatal networks and in distributions of right and left hemisphere activation patterns across tasks) suggest a possible neural tradeoff in which those with dyslexia process figures with greater facility while typically developing peers have a print-processing advantage.
This study lends empirical support to the hypothesis that people with dyslexia might possess certain types of visuospatial processing strengths. But wait. There are important caveats and cautions. To break it down, we spoke with Dr. Ken Pugh—President and Director of Research at Haskins and senior author on this study—who presented some of this information at the 2013 conference4 of the International Dyslexia Association in New Orleans.
Q&A with Dr. Pugh
Q: There is long-standing interest in whether people with dyslexia have visuospatial talents and, if they do, why? Your lab recently completed a study that sheds new light on the "talent-dyslexia question." Please tell us what your study found.
A: Yes, there has been a good deal of anecdotal evidence about people with dyslexia having talents or relative strengths in non-language visuospatial domains, such as art, architecture, and various arenas related to three-dimensional thinking. If people with dyslexia do have these visuospatial strengths, why is that? One idea put forward by Dr. Gordon Sherman (a co-author on this new study) is the cerebrodiversity hypothesis (flip to p. 16), which argues that all genetic blueprints that are preserved over time must convey advantages in some domains. (See Sherman & Cowen, 2009, 2010 for elaboration on this idea.)
Now, we know there are bright, beautiful, interesting children with specific problems in language, which impact their ability to learn to read—but not their general intellectual abilities. Many of these kids do seem to show a wide variety of strengths. About ten years ago, Drs. Sherman5 and Ellen Winner studied this empirically using the Impossible Figures task, which involved looking at two-dimensional figures and judging if they could exist in the real world. Both studies found that children with dyslexia were faster and no less accurate than controls. (See von Karolyi, et al. 2001, 2003.)
We decided to see if we could, first, replicate the finding that children with dyslexia have this visuospatial processing speed advantage and, if so, to study the brain basis of this with fMRI.
First and foremost, we replicated the speed advantage from the two previous reports. Children with dyslexia were faster, but no less accurate on the visuospatial task. The subjects with dyslexia also were slower and less accurate on reading tasks—no surprise there. The fMRI study also yielded important findings that may help us understand why this is so.
Q: Without getting too “brain geeky,” help us understand these fMRI findings.
A: In general, areas of the brain that are part of cortical and subcortical pathways associated with skill or “expertise” learning (including the basal ganglia) show a striking difference between groups and tasks. The upshot: When processing figures, subjects with dyslexia show more “expert-like” brain activation patterns than controls. The opposite is true for print processing. Activation in the frontal-striatal systems is consistent with reaction time data—when one group is faster, they show this underlying brain pattern usually seen for highly skilled behaviors. In other words, the frontal-striatal pattern is commensurate with the notion that subjects with dyslexia process figures with a higher degree of expertise than controls.
Now let’s consider the question of a possible tradeoff between the right and left hemispheres. Typically developing readers develop left hemisphere specialization for reading and language. One of the frequent findings in neuroimaging of children with dyslexia is that they fail to develop this pattern and instead develop an altered circuit involving greater reliance on right hemisphere and frontal lobe areas. One possibility that we tested is, if controls dedicated more left hemisphere tissue for reading, would they rely more intensively on the right hemisphere and frontal lobes to process figures, while subjects with dyslexia with less specialization of the left hemisphere might not show this kind of hemispheric tradeoff? The data from the study are consistent with this notion and we, in fact, find there is greater hemispheric differentiation for the two tasks (reading vs. Impossible Figures) in controls than children with dyslexia.
Q: What does all this mean? Why is it important?
A: There are a couple of take-home messages. Certainly the behavioral and neuroimaging data suggest that people with dyslexia process certain kinds of visuospatial information more efficiently, which is consistent with the notion of cerebrodiversity—and more broadly with the notion that the dyslexic brain, while different, is associated with very efficient processing of other types of cognitive functions. In other words, the blueprint for the brain organization that produces weaknesses in reading does not preclude development of more effective cognitive functions in domains such as visuospatial processing. Theories of dyslexia that make the claim that the dyslexic brain is generally less well organized would have a hard time accounting for this type of finding. The bottom line: The dyslexic brain is not associated with disadvantages across all perceptual domains—again, a finding consistent with the notion of cerebrodiversity.
Q: Do you have caveats or cautions for parents, educators, and people with dyslexia as they seek to understand these findings and think about them in their work or lives?
A: Absolutely. We need to be cautious about interpreting the results from one experiment, especially for parents, educators, or people with dyslexia. First of all, this advantage in Impossible Figures, while it appears reliable, is nonetheless a small advantage in speed, not a major difference in any way. Thus, we don’t want to overstate the impact of this speed advantage in real world contexts. Secondly, we still cannot determine from this study why the dyslexic brain processes Impossible Figures with more efficiency. We need to understand that better. And, until we do, we should not make overly strong inferences or conclusions. For example, we cannot rule out that this advantage in Impossible Figures processing is simply a consequence of less reading experience compared to controls. In other words from this one study alone, we don’t know if this is a cause or a consequence. This leads us to what we need to do next.
Q: Ah, you anticipated my next question, what is next in the exploration of visuospatial strengths and dyslexia?
A: We need to study these visuospatial processes in children before they learn to read and determine if this advantage in children at risk for dyslexia is present from the start or instead follows from different levels of reading experience. In our lab, we are beginning longitudinal studies with very young children and will follow up on this question of cause or consequence. If we find that the advantage presages learning to read, we will then need to better understand why the specific characteristics of the visual system in these children produce this advantage. If we can do all of this, we might, at some point, be better able to incorporate this understanding into how to create better learning experiences for these kids.
The bottom line is this: There seems to be a cognitive and neurobiological basis for the notion that some aspects of visuospatial processing appear to be an advantage in children with dyslexia. Whether this advantage has a profound effect on real world experience is beyond the scope of any one behavioral-neuroimaging study. Therefore, until we have a richer scientific foundation, caution is needed. But this study does suggest a whole new avenue of research that might help us better understand how cerebrodiversity manifests in children with and without a learning difference such as dyslexia.
Q: Final question: When and where can we look for publication of this study, “Visual Processing Strengths in Reading Disorders?”
A: The paper is currently undergoing peer review in a neuroscience journal. We will keep you up to date as we go forward.
Discussion for and against emphasizing dyslexia’s hypothesized strengths will, no doubt, continue playing out in various ways, especially as technological-cultural forces continue shaping education institutions, practices, and demands. We thank Dr. Pugh for sharing the results of the Haskins study and for helping to inform ongoing thinking and discussion on this intriguing topic.
This study's findings, which lend empirical support to the hypothesis that people with dyslexia might have certain types of visuospatial processing strengths, are as important as Dr. Pugh's cautions—a richer scientific foundation is needed to know (a) whether these strengths are a consequence of less reading experience and (b) if they translate into a significant real world benefit.
Watch future issues of The Examiner for updates on publication of the Haskins study and other research on this and related topics.
Carolyn D. Cowen, Ed.M, is the Social Media Editor/Strategist for The International Dyslexia Association Examiner. She also is a Founding Board Member of Literate Nation, serving as its Chief Media Officer and Editor in Chief.
Disclosure: The Haskins research discussed in this article was funded in part with a grant from The Learning Disabilities Network. Ms. Cowen co-founded “The Network,” served as its Executive Director, and currently serves on its board of directors.
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