Monday, November 30, 2020

A Future of Reversals

Note: In my continuing sorting of old papers and documents, I recently found a journal reprint that had been quite popular and was distributed widely during the early 1990s. Brief excerpts are provided below. Today I would not change a word. This piece may show how advanced my thinking was at the time -- or how I have learned nothing new in the last 28 years. -- TGW

“A Future of Reversals:

Dyslexic Talents in a World of Computer Visualization”

by Thomas G West, Washington, DC


The Reprint Series, The Orton Dyslexia Society. 

From the Annals of Dyslexia, Vol. 42, 1992. ISSN 0736 –9387, pp.124-139.

[Excerpt:] With the recent revival of visual approaches at the forefront of several scientific, mathematical, and technological developments, this paper proposes that visually oriented dyslexics may be in an increasingly favorable position in future years. The same set of traits which have caused them so much difficulty in traditional verbally-oriented educational systems, may confer special advantages  

in emerging new fields which may rely heavily on visual methods of analysis –- fields which employ powerful graphic workstations and supercomputers to visualize complex scientific data. Recent trends have also led some technical professionals to become aware that their own special talents seem to be closely associated with certain dyslexic traits. It is argued that similarly mixed talents have been major factors in the accomplishments of a number of important historical figures. 


New technologies and techniques currently being developed in computer graphics, medical imaging, and what is now called “scientific visualization” are already having important effects on our society and will in time have profound consequences for education and work at all levels. 

A side effect of these advances may be that certain visual-spatial abilities often found among dyslexics may come to confer special advantages in those fields which are coming to rely more heavily on visual approaches and techniques. Ironically, these special advantages may result from the same pattern of traits that has long caused so much difficulty for visually oriented dyslexics in traditional verbally oriented educational systems. 

Thus, it is proposed that many dyslexics will find themselves on the right side of a major set of trend reversals -- ones that could dramatically affect their lives in the lives of their children.

Historically, some of the most original thinkers in the physical sciences, engineering, mathematics, and other areas have relied heavily on visual modes of thought, employing images instead of words or numbers. Some of these thinkers have shown evidence of a striking range of learning difficulties, including problems with the reading, spelling, writing, calculation, attention, speaking, and memory. In recent years, neurological research has suggested that some forms of early brain growth and development tend to produce verbal and other difficulties the same time they produce a variety of exceptional visual and spatial talents (Geschwind and Behan 1982; Geschwind and Galaburda 1985). 


* * * * *


The consequences of the coming changes maybe far greater than we can easily imagine. We need to realize that for some 400 or 500 years our schools essentially have been teaching the skills of a Medieval clerk –- reading, writing, counting, and memorizing texts. With the more pervasive influence of increasingly powerful computers of all kinds, we could be on the verge of a new era when we will be required to develop a very different set of talents and skills, those of a Renaissance man such as Leonardo da Vinci rather than those of the clerk or lay scholar of the Middle Ages.

* * * * * 


In the future, instead of the qualities desired in a well-trained clerk, we may find far more desirable talents and traits similar to those associated with Leonardo da Vinci: a facility with visual-spatial approaches and modes of analysis instead of mainly verbal (or numerical or symbolic) fluency; a propensity to learn directly through experience (or simulated experience) rather than primarily from lectures books; a habit of continuous investigation in many different areas of study through ceaseless curiosity (perhaps with occasional but transient specialization); the more integrated perspective of the global generalist rather than the increasingly narrow specialist; a predisposition to innovation by making connections among many diverse fields; an ability to rapidly progress through many phases of research, development and design using imagination and “intuitive” mental models, now incorporating modern three-dimensional computer-aided design systems.  (Aaron, Phillips and Larson, 1988; Ritchie-Calder, 1970; Sartori, 1987).

Leonardo da Vinci’s predisposition to investigation and analysis through visualization may come to serve us as well as it served him, providing innovative results well in advance of those competing groups which follow other more conventional approaches. 

Thus, in the foreseeable future, we may come full circle, using the most advanced technologies and techniques to draw on some of the most old-fashioned approaches and capacities to simulate reality rather than describe it in words or numbers. To learn, once again, by doing, rather than by reading. To learn, once again, by seeing and experimenting, rather than by following memorized algorithms and routines. In so doing, all of us will learn greater respect for abilities and intelligences that were  always vitally important, but were generally eclipsed by a disproportionate emphasis on the traits and skills most valued by traditional schoolmen and scholars. Sometimes, the oldest pathways and most primitive patterns can be the best guides into uncharted waters.  [End of excerpt.]