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Upside of Dyslexia? Science Scant, but Intriguing

by Carolyn D. Cowen, Ed.M. and Gordon F. Sherman, Ph.D. 

Dyslexia is in the news. Topics range from landmark legislation and intriguing neuroimaging research to the unique challenges and possible advantages of dyslexia. These news stories triggered dozens of follow-up articles and blogs, all of which are reverberating around the Internet.

Most of this media attention is welcome and helpful. For families touched by dyslexia and for those working on their behalf, seeing these promising legislative and research developments get headlines is exciting. It also is gratifying to see awareness of dyslexia heightened and important related information gain attention—such as the International Dyslexia Association’s Knowledge and Practice Standards for Teachers of Reading.

Sure, it is disappointing to watch oversimplifications and misconceptions weave through the coverage and bounce around the web. Dyslexia and its concomitant myths ebb and flow in the news with the quasi-periodic regularity of El Nino. Misconceptions pop up relentlessly, despite ongoing efforts by the International Dyslexia Association (IDA) and allied organizations to dispel dyslexia’s myths.

These misconceptions should not surprise us. Dyslexia is a complex, nuanced, and challenging topic. Our knowledge about dyslexia as well as its definitions continue to evolve. As they must. In an Annals of Dyslexia article introducing dyslexia’s current definition, Lyon, Shaywitz, and Shaywitz (2003) made the same point: “Our understanding of dyslexia is a work in progress and will continue to be just that” (p.10).

Dyslexia & Talent: Media Coverage

With that context, we turn to one of the topics making recent headlines, the possibility that dyslexia has advantages.

The science supporting this hypothesis is intriguing but scant. Nevertheless, the topic tends to capture media attention—most recently in a New York Times Sunday Review article, “The Upside of Dyslexia,” and on National Public Radio (NPR) The Diane Rehm Show about “The Dyslexic Brain" and its special challenges and possible advantages.

IDA was well represented on the NPR show. IDA’s immediate past president, Guinevere Eden (Director of the Center for the Study of Learning and Professor of Pediatrics at Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington, DC) and former IDA Board member, Jeffrey Gilger (Professor, School of Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts, University of California, Merced) joined Laura Kaloi (Director of Public Policy at the National Center for Learning Disabilities) and Brock Eide (co-author of The Dyslexic Advantage).

Asked about possible advantages of dyslexia, Eden said, “At IDA, we have highly successful people with dyslexia who speak about strengths they believe are due to their dyslexia. What we need to do in research is to find a better way to understand those strengths so that we can take better advantage of them. At the same time, we must ensure that teachers have the tools they need to become the best teachers they can and we must provide the research knowledge we do have with regards to teaching these students so they have better reading skills.”

The need to ensure the teacher knowledge, skills, and support necessary for skillful reading instruction is a vital point not to be lost in any exploration of a talent-dyslexia link. The need for empirical research to understand dyslexia’s possible associated strengths is another important point, which Gilger reiterated.

“As far as research on whether dyslexics have a tendency to be more talented in areas like spatial skills, the empirical evidence for that is pretty weak. It’s weak because enough good solid research hasn’t been done,” said Gilger. “We have anecdotal reports. Those hit the press a lot. We hear commentaries about people being seen in clinics and so forth, that they have special gifts. But we don’t have really good research.”

Is a dyslexia advantage just another myth? Wishful thinking? A bromide? Is it a red herring distracting us from the important task at hand—learning to read? Are talents in dyslexia a “neural compensation effect,” a work-around to compensate for weaknesses in a developing brain? Or are “dyslexic brains different almost from the start? (See study, Raschle, Zuk & Gaab, 2012.) Are these abilities nothing more than an “I’ll-show-‘em” response to early failure? Does the premise actually hurt kids with dyslexia by setting unrealistic expectations?

These questions are not new. Nor are stories in the popular press linking dyslexia to special abilities and remarkable achievement. A 2002 Fortune Magazine cover story on “The Dyslexic CEO” featured “four dead-end kids” (Richard Branson, Charles Schwab, John Chambers, and David Boise) who, despite difficulty learning to read, went on to become hugely successful. Another New York Times article, “Tracing Business Acumen to Dyslexia” (2007), reported on a survey of entrepreneurs: One third identified themselves as having dyslexia. NPR did a show on that, too—Does Dyslexia Translate to Business Success? 

And yet, “For every millionaire with dyslexia there are thousands of kids who in longitudinal research will self-report that they use drugs, are unemployed, drop out of high school, and can’t gain work that allows them to support a family,” said Kaloi on NPR’s The Diane Rehm Show last month.

Good point. A parade of celebrities and notables march through most stories in the popular press about dyslexia. Their ranks include heroic types no longer living, but presumed—because of struggles in school—to have had dyslexia. These inspiring examples of remarkable achievement offer vital lifelines of hope to those struggling with dyslexia. The importance of those lifelines cannot be overstated. Media coverage offering hope and inspiration along with accurate practical information definitely is helpful.

That said; there is much heavy lifting to be done on behalf of those “thousands of kids” cited by Kaloi and miles to go to document with empirical research a possible dyslexia-talent link.

Dyslexia & Talent: Digging Deeper

With those important caveats and qualifiers underscored, what support can we muster in favor of a dyslexia-talent link? A number of authors have explored this topic, including: Margaret Rawson, The Many Faces of Dyslexia (1988); Thomas G. West, In the Mind’s Eye (1991); Sally Shaywitz, Overcoming Dyslexia (2003); Maryanne Wolf, Proust and the Squid (2007); and Brock L. Eide and Fernette F. Eide, The Dyslexic Advantage (2011).

One of the earliest and most esteemed writers on the subject is Norman Geschwind, father of modern behavioral neurology, friend to IDA, and cited in all the above works. Geschwind spoke and wrote often about what he called, “the pathology of superiority.”

A few standout Geschwind quotes:

. . . (M)any dyslexics have superior talents in certain areas of non-verbal skill, such as art, architecture, engineering, and athletics. The immediate naïve presumption is that success in these fields is simply the result of compensatory achievement in non-verbal fields on the part of those who do not succeed in readily acquiring reading. I believe that this explanation must convey at best a very small fraction of the truth. (Geschwind, 1982b, p. 22)

. . .(T)he over- whelming majority of humans who ever have lived have been illiterate. . . . Most of us come from families that four generations ago did not possess the ability to read. If certain changes on the left side of the brain lead to superiority of other regions, particularly on the right side of the brain, then there would be little disadvantage to the carrier of such changes in an illiterate society; their talents would make them highly successful citizens. It is not surprising that this type of brain organization should occur with such high frequency. (Geschwind, 1982b, pp. 22-23)

. . . (T)he knowledge of every aspect of dyslexia will be enriched by seeing it in its broadest biological and sociological settings. We must understand its relationships to high talent and the societal setting in which it becomes a disability. . . . (Geschwind, 1984, p. 327)

Geschwind would be fascinated by the multidisciplinary fusion of breakthrough research in neuroscience, cognitive psychology, genetics, and cognitive neuroscience that has emerged since his death in 1984 and by our expanded knowledge about dyslexia. On the other hand, Geschwind probably would be stunned by the meager amount of empirical research on, in his words, “the advantages of the predisposition to dyslexia."

The research we do have, however, is intriguing. Here are some highlights:

This study suggests that many dyslexics favor the peripheral visual field over the center, which results in not only search deficits but also (more surprisingly) in talents for visual comparison.

This study found that students with dyslexia were faster than control students and equally accurate in determining whether figures were possible or impossible.

  • Geiger, G. & Lettvin, J. Y. (1987) Peripheral vision in persons with dyslexia. New England Journal of Medicine, 316, 1238-1243.

This study suggests that individuals with dyslexia are better able to recognize letters in the periphery than typical readers, but less able to do so near the center field of vision. (Subsequent studies by these authors also suggest wide auditory perceptual strengths—the “cocktail-party effect”— in dyslexics, indicating “wider multi-dimensional neural tuning of sensory processing interacting with wider spatial attention.”)

The Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity is conducting ongoing research. Also, the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics is investigating whether differences in neuroanatomy help people with dyslexia perform certain types of visual processing that are important in science. Finally, a new fMRI study (not yet published) conducted at Haskins Laboratories found a pattern of functioning suggesting that figures are more automatic in individuals with reading disability (RD) and print is more automatic in typically developing peers. “This study provides evidence for a tradeoff and of the potential for efficient brain organization for the domain of visuo-spatial processing in RD” (Diehl, et al., 2012).

Do these studies and ongoing investigations constitute sufficient empirical evidence to establish a higher representation of certain talents among those with dyslexia than those without? Not yet. But the findings are intriguing, are they not? Certainly, they provide a basis for further investigation and are consistent with long-standing clinical observation.

For generations, parents and educators have provided anecdotal evidence suggesting that a noteworthy percentage of children with dyslexia have strong abilities, often in visual-spatial domains. As Brock Eide pointed out on NPR’s The Diane Rehm Show last month, “there is an overwhelming amount of suggestive evidence that cries out for deeper investigation.”

The science supporting the hypothesis that dyslexia and talent might be linked remains a work in progress, like much of our understanding of dyslexia. Granted, research in recent decades on dyslexia and the reading brain has catapulted this understanding forward and generated important breakthroughs in the science of teaching and learning reading. If we manage to crack the tough nut of scaled and sustainable implementation, those breakthroughs will benefit most children, especially those with dyslexia. Still, mysteries remain, including the persistent observation that many individuals with dyslexic characteristics seem to be endowed with extraordinary abilities.

Dyslexia & Talent: Call for Action

What conclusions can we draw from all this? We suggest two.

The first is obvious. Research investigating the hypothesized dyslexia-talent link is called for, not only because it deepens knowledge of dyslexia and related learning differences, but also because it heightens understanding of the human condition and may open important pathways for enhancing human potential. Such knowledge and understanding, surely, will have practical applications, especially as rapidly emerging and shifting digital forces begin redefining “literacy” and schooling.

The second conclusion is less obvious. We propose placing dyslexia and related learning differences within a cerebrodiversity framework. Why? Seeing dyslexia as a byproduct of cerebrodiversity–humanity’s collective neural heterogeneity—offers perspective that helps explain dyslexia and its paradoxical talents and deficits and that allows us to transcend today’s disability paradigm. A cerebrodiversity perspective helps us recognize learning differences as byproducts of a complex mechanism—a dynamic gene-brain-environment interplay that enabled our species to adapt and succeed for over 200,000 years. This dynamic interplay yields tiny neural differences (anatomical, cellular, and connectional) that, depending on environmental demand, can translate into socially defined talents and disabilities. (For more about cerebrodiversity, see Sherman and Cowen, 2010, “Norman Geschwind: Man out of Time” pp. 16-17.)

What kinds of talents are needed to solve tomorrow’s challenges and discover future opportunities? Cerebrodiversity, the ultimate natural resource, guarantees that all kinds of thinkers will be on hand. How can we ensure that diverse learners, such as those with dyslexia, acquire the vital skills they need to thrive in contemporary society while we invest in their strengths and talents? 

Given the exponential pace of technological, social, and planetary change, the imperative to answer this question is more urgent than ever. If you agree, we hope you will share a link to this article and engage in discussion, planning, and problem-solving around that question.

Twenty-first century schooling must leverage the gift of cerebrodiversity. 


When dyslexia makes headlines, IDA’s eXaminer feature—Dyslexia in the News—helps readers not only stay abreast of the coverage with recaps and links to original sources, but also go beyond the headlines with thoughtful commentary from experts in the field. Help us reach out! Share links to this eXaminer and to IDA’s website!

Gordon F. Sherman, Ph.D.: Board member, The International Dyslexia Association, Executive Director, Newgrange School & Education Center

Carolyn D. Cowen, Ed.M.: Social-Media Editor & Strategist, The eXaminer; Executive Director, Carroll School Center for Innovative Education.


 

References

Eide, B. L., Eide, F. F. (2011). The Dyslexic Advantage: Unlocking the hidden potential of the dyslexic brain. New York: Hudson Street Press.

Geiger, G. & Lettvin, J. Y. (1987) Peripheral vision in persons with dyslexia. New England Journal of Medicine 316, 1238-1243.

Geschwind, N. (1982b). Why Orton was right: Annals of Dyslexia, 32, 13-30.

Geschwind, N. (1984). Brain of a learning-disabled individual. Annals of Dyslexia. 34, 319-327.

Logan, J. (2009). Dyslexic entrepreneurs: The Incidence; their coping strategies and their skills. [Electronic version]. John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Retrieved March 4, 2012, from http://www.cassknowledge.com/sites/default/files/article-attachments/419~~julielogan_dyslexic_entrepreneurs.pdf

Lyon, G. R., Shaywitz, S. E., & Shaywitz, B. A. (2003). A definition of dyslexia. Annals of Dyslexia: An Interdisciplinary Journal of the International Dyslexia Association, 53, 1-14.

Morris, B., Munoz, L & Neering, P. (2002, May 23). Overcoming Dyslexia, Fortune Magazine. Retrieved March 4, 2012, from http://money.cnn.com/magazines/fortune/fortune_archive/2002/05/13/322876/index.htm 

Powers, B. (2001, December 6). Tracing business acumen to dyslexia. New York Times: Business. Retrieved March 4, 2012, from http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/06/business/06dyslexia.html?sq=&st=nyt&adxnnl=1&scp=1&adxnnlx=1330873808-Xz++W57B5jUiLQ/Ykbg5bg 

Diehl, J. J., Frost, S., Sherman, G. F., Mencl, W. E., Kurian, A., Eaton, B., Soldan, A., Pugh, K. R., Neural correlates of visual processing advantages in adolescents with reading disability. Manuscript in preparation.

Raschle, N. M., Zuk, J., & Gaab, N. (2012). Functional characteristics of developmental dyslexia in left-hemispheric posterior brain regions predate reading onset. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 109 (11). 

Rawson, M. B. (1988). The many faces of dyslexia. Baltimore MD: The International Dyslexia Association.

Schneps, M. R., Rose, T. L. & Fischer, K. W. (2007). Visual learning and the brain: Implications for dyslexia. Mind, Brain, and Education, 1(3), 128-129.

Shaywitz, S. (2003). Overcoming dyslexia: A new and complete science-based program for reading problems at any level. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Sherman, G. F. & Cowen, C. D., (2010). Dyslexia with 2020 vision: Where will we be in 10 years? Perspectives on Language and Literacy: A Quarterly Publication of The International Dyslexia Association. 36 (1).

von Karolyi, C., Winner, E. Gray, W., & Sherman, G. F. (2003). Dyslexia linked to talent: Global visual-spatial ability. Brain and Language, 85, 427-431.

West, T. G. (1991). In the mind’s eye: Visual thinkers, gifted people with dyslexia and other learning difficulties, computer images and the ironies of creativity. New York: Prometheus.

Wolf, M. (2007). Proust and the squid: The story and science of the reading brain. New York: Harper Collins.