Friday, April 10, 2009

The Arts Dyslexia Trust

Over the years, it seems that most of the organizations dealing with dyslexia around the world have focused mainly on fixing problems -- mostly remediation of academic skills. The one great exception for many years has been the Arts Dyslexia Trust in Britain. I have already provided a sample of their work and influence (in the arts as well as the sciences) with the recent web log entry, “Dyslexic Talent, Visual Thinking and Nobel Prizes.” I thought it would be interesting to know a little history about how the Trust came to be. Below are excepts from a “Brief History” by Sue Parkinson:

“The Arts Dyslexia Trust was established in 1992 but its history really goes back much further than that, to the early 1960’s when the word “dyslexia” was scarcely known in England. A remarkable small independent school (Brickwall, in Sussex) run by a very remarkable head master Malcolm Ritchie, was one of the first in England to recognise dyslexia and to attempt to build up a group of teaching staff that could meet the learning needs of young dyslexic minds. I was fortunate enough to be asked to join this group and became responsible for art classes there for the next 20 years.

“As soon as I got there, I became fascinated by the work that was being created by the boys in these classes. Compared to the work produced in Art Colleges where I had previously been teaching, their creative imagination was simply outstanding and the results amazing. . . .

“By the time I retired, in 1985, I had become convinced that there must be some reason why a lack of ability with words should so often bring with it a higher than average ability in subjects requiring visual-spatial skills. I [was] . . . determined to discover the roots of this connection. Of course, I was always being told that such a connection did not exist but I soon found that the evidence was there. From the great Norman Geschwind, his brilliant successor Albert Galaburda, and many others, I gathered the clues to the explanation I was looking for.

“. . . I believe that traditional academic education depends on the use of words and numbers that can only be understood sequentially. The visual thinkers, including many of the talented dyslexics, think three-dimensionally. The differences between these two ways of thinking are profound. They affect all sorts of things, not only the way people learn. . . .

“One major source of misunderstanding is that it is not generally appreciated that there are two ways of perceiving, recording and manipulating visual information in one’s brain: two-dimensionally . . . , and three-dimensionally. It is the latter form that is most commonly used amongst dyslexics. The fact that none of the so-called ‘visual’ tests distinguish between these two ways of thinking and very, very few are presented in three-dimensional format explains, perhaps, why there is such controversy on the subject and why there are still so many people who refuse to believe that . . . dyslexic visual talent exists.

“So, the first thing we did when the Trust was formed was to mount a big exhibition at the Mall Galleries in London, to demonstrate this dyslexic talent. It attracted enormous support from the art world and elsewhere. Richard Rogers lent us some of his beautiful architectural models; we showed Leonardo da Vinci prints from the Queen’s collection at Windsor; pages from Michael Faraday’s illustrated notebooks, extracts from Albert Einstein’s mathematical notes; and a beautiful photograph of one of William Butler Yeats’ hand written poems kindly given to us by the . . . editor of Yeats’ letters. ‘A first exhibition of its kind,’ was warmly welcomed by, amongest other people, Roger de Gray KCVO, past president of the Royal Academy, who said, ‘I warmly welcome the encouragement that this exhibition will give to present dyslexic students and their families, and also hope that it may encourage a fresh assessment on the part of educational authorities on the value of visual thinking.’ ”

Quoted from “A Brief History of the Arts Dyslexia Trust” by Sue Parkinson

Further information available at:

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Seeing What Cannot Be Seen: Faraday and Maxwell

The following is based on an excerpt from In the Mind's Eye, providing us with a wonderful example of the enduring power of visual thinking--even before it is recast into mathematical form.

With this reference to "lines of force," one is immediately brought back to Michael Faraday, the self-educated scientist of the early nineteenth century whom we met at the beginning of this chapter. A tireless worker, Faraday was responsible for a great many fundamental discoveries in chemistry and physics, although he hated these specialist terms--he preferred to call himself a "philosopher." Among many achievements, his greatest was that he originated the concept of subtle electromagnetic "lines of force"--also originating the associated concept of the nonvisible electromagnetic "field" as well. (These are the same lines as those produced by the effect of a strong magnet on iron filings spread on a piece of paper.) So sensitive was Faraday to these "lines of force" that for him they were "as real as matter." His powerful visual conception of these ideas provided the basis for James Clerk Maxwell's famous mathematical equations which, in turn, provided the foundation for modern physics by defining the relationship between light, electricity and magnetism. The ideas set forth by these men have been remarkably enduring--remaining virtually unchanged up to the present time.

Both Faraday and Maxwell are extraordinarily important in the history of modern physics, and yet, unlike Einstein, who greatly respected their work, neither is well known to the lay public. The enduring position of these scientists, as well as the nature of their contributions, is summarized in Isaac Asimov's History of Physics : "Faraday . . . perhaps the greatest electrical innovator of all, was completely innocent of mathematics, and he developed his notion of lines of force in a remarkably unsophisticated way, picturing them almost like rubber bands.” Asimov is somewhat uneasy about the foregoing description of Faraday's "unsophisticated" pictures, and he comments in a footnote to his own text: “This is not meant as a sneer at Faraday, who was certainly one of the greatest scientists of all time. His intuition was that of a first-class genius. Although his views were built up without the aid of a carefully worked out mathematical analysis, they were solid. When the mathematics was finally supplied, the essence of Faraday's notions was shown to be correct.”

It is worth noting that the ambivalence toward Faraday shown here is repeated over and over again by scientific writers, showing the difficulty of their taking seriously a scientist who is not a mathematician, no matter how original, productive or prescient this scientist may be. Asimov continues: “In the 1860's, Maxwell, a great admirer of Faraday, set about supplying the mathematical analysis of the interrelationship of electricity and magnetism in order to round out Faraday's non-mathematical treatment. . . . In 1864, Maxwell devised a set of four comparatively simple equations, known ever since as "Maxwell's equations." From these, it proved possible to deduce the nature of the interrelationships of electricity and magnetism under all possible conditions. . . . Maxwell's equations were more successful than Newton's laws. The latter were shown to be but approximations that held for low velocities and short distances. They required the modification of Einstein's broader relativistic viewpoint if they were to be made to apply with complete generality. Maxwell's equations, on the other hand, survived all the changes introduced by relativity and the quantum theory; they are as valid in the light of present knowledge as they were when they were first introduced a century ago.”

The long term consequences of Faraday's ideas recast in Maxwell's mathematical formulations have been extraordinarily broad and pervasive down to the present time. One of Maxwell's biographers points out that “there is hardly an area of modern technology and physics in which Maxwell's theory has not contributed something of importance--from electrical power generation and transmission to communication systems or the monster accelerators of modern physics. The scientific, practical, and engineering consequences of Maxwell's equations have been seminal, all-pervasive and quite impossible to list. Maxwell's theory, however, was more than a synthesis or a source of future technologies. It involved a radical change in our conception of reality, a fundamental shift in point of view--it was . . . a scientific revolution.”

The full significance of Maxwell's achievements and of Faraday's ideas, on which they are based, is little known to the nonprofessional. Consequently, it is, perhaps, worth the risk of laboring the point with another reference in order to convey the full weight of accomplishment. Richard Feynman, a Nobel Prize winning physicist and author (who came into the public eye shortly before his death through his involvement with the investigation of the space shuttle explosion), provided this assessment: “From a long view of the history of mankind--seen from, say, ten thousand years from now--there can be little doubt that the most significant event of the 19th century will be judged as Maxwell's discovery of the laws of electrodynamics. The American Civil War will pale into provincial insignificance in comparison with this important scientific event of the same decade.”

Although Maxwell was recognized as one of the foremost mathematicians of his time, he did not consider Faraday's total ignorance of formal mathematics a reason to take his ideas less seriously. On the contrary, he found the precision and logic of Faraday's conceptions so compelling that he termed them "mathematical." Indeed, Maxwell explicitly stated that the development of his own equations was merely a translation of Faraday's ideas into conventional mathematical form. In the preface to A Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism, his major work first published in 1873, Maxwell explains: “. . . before I began the study of electricity I resolved to read no mathematics on the subject till I had first read through Faraday's Experimental Researches in Electricity. I was aware that there was supposed to be a difference between Faraday's way of conceiving phenomena and that of the mathematicians, so that neither he nor they were satisfied with each other's language. I had also the conviction that the discrepancy did not arise from either party being wrong. . . . As I proceeded with the study of Faraday, I perceived that his method of conceiving the phenomena was also a mathematical one, though not exhibited in the conventional form of symbols. I also found that these methods were capable of being expressed in the ordinary mathematical forms, and thus compared with those of the professed mathematicians.”

Also in this preface, Maxwell provides a particularly illuminating description of Faraday's thought in comparison with that of the mathematicians of the time. An extended quotation (noted previously, in part) shows the contrast in approach and ways of thinking. Maxwell explains: “For instance, Faraday, in his mind's eye, saw lines of force traversing all space where the mathematicians saw centres of force attracting at a distance: Faraday saw a medium where they saw nothing but distance: Faraday sought the seat of the phenomena in real actions going on in the medium, they were satisfied that they had found it in a power of action at a distance impressed on the electric fluids. When I had translated what I considered to be Faraday's ideas into a mathematical form, I found that in general the results of the two methods coincided . . . but that Faraday's methods resembled those in which we begin with the whole and arrive at the parts by analysis, while the ordinary mathematical methods were founded on the principle of beginning with the parts and building up the whole by synthesis. I also found that several of the most fertile methods of research discovered by the mathematicians could be expressed much better in terms of ideas derived from Faraday than in their original form. The whole theory, for instance, of the potential, considered as a quantity which satisfies a certain partial differential equation, belongs essentially to the method which I have called that of Faraday. . . . Hence many of the mathematical discoveries of Laplace, Poisson, Green and Gauss find their proper place in this treatise, and their appropriate expressions in terms of conceptions mainly derived from Faraday.”

One does not have to be a scientist or a mathematician to see the sincere admiration Maxwell had for Faraday's ideas and his deep appreciation of the complete originality of Faraday's approach. He saw that Faraday's conception was as capable of explaining the same phenomena as was that of the professional mathematicians, but his approach involved a clearer vision of the whole and provided a "much better" way of expressing some of the "most fertile" ideas--presumably seen as more elegant as a result.

Maxwell's ready acknowledgment of his intellectual debt to Faraday is admirable. What seems more remarkable is the ease with which Maxwell absorbs and translates Faraday's relatively unfashionable ideas and the vigor with which he defends the uneducated originator of these ideas. There seemed to be an unusual correspondence in modes of thought between the two men concerning concepts that were apparently unintelligible to other scientists of their time. Their shared, unusual visual-spatial proficiency might have been a major factor in their special basis of mutual respect and understanding.

From In the Mind’s Eye, chapter 1, “Slow Words, Quick Images: An Overview.”

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Dyslexic Talent, Visual Thinking and Nobel Prizes

There is a seemly endless debate between those learning about science and those doing science. Schools and teachers want memorization. But working scientists want discoveries. Many believe the one leads to the other. However, it seems increasingly clear that sometimes it is better not to know too much--and to be able to observe nature with fresh eyes and a mind relatively uncluttered by other people’s thoughts. And sometimes the most important discoveries are made by those visual thinkers and dyslexics who have struggled the most in their early schooling. The following is based on an excerpt from Thinking Like Einstein:

Not Only for Children

“I didn't expect” a Nobel Prize “at all,” he said, “in part because of the nature of the work. There was less science [and more engineering] in it than the things customarily honored by the prizes.” This is the observation of Jack S. Kilby (Texas Instruments) co-inventor of the integrated circuit, on being notified of his award .

The Nobel Prize for chemistry awarded at the same time to Alan J. Heeger (UC-Santa Barbara) and Hideki Shirakawa (University of Tsukuba) for their work on conductive polymers also reflected the recognition of broad effects rather than pure science. “We're very excited,” said Daryle H. Busch of the American Chemical Society, “because this award is in the old tradition. That is, it was given for work that has a very substantial impact on society.”

The shift back to an earlier tradition by the Nobel Prize committee may reflect a growing recognition in the larger world of the deep value of applied work of broad impact as opposed to the highly theoretical work of relatively low impact that has commanded such high prestige in recent decades. Thus, these changes might be read as the small beginnings of a larger and more gradual swing back toward a greater respect for hand and eye and image building in the brain.

For some time the major contributions of visual thinkers have been eclipsed in many fields by theoretical approaches that did not lend themselves to pictures or images or imagined models and hands-on manipulation. For a long time, we have been told with confidence that visual approaches were old fashioned and somehow primitive. Modern scientists and mathematicians, we have been told, did not need images. Pictures and diagrams were for non-professionals, laypersons and children.

But we may now see that things may be going back the other way. With new visualization technologies, and a new sense of missed opportunities with the old narrow methods, researchers in many fields are becoming aware that in order to do really creative work, they may need to go back to visual approaches once again. So, perhaps, we come back again to the place where much of the most advanced and creative work is done by visual thinkers using visual methods and new visual technologies. Once again, pictures are not only for children.

Reassessing Visual Roots at Green College

Quiet indicators of these powerful changes are beginning, here and there, to gain broader attention. In one instance, on a bleak and rainy Saturday, a small but historic conference took place at Green College, Oxford University. With observations that will gladden the hearts of many strong visual thinkers, the conference presentations focused on high-level achievements in the arts and the sciences within families over several generations. Titled “Genius in the Genes?” and sponsored by the Arts Dyslexia Trust, the conference included an associated exhibition of art and scientific work from eight families. All these families showed evidence of high visual and spatial talents along with troubles with words. Several members of each family were also dyslexic.

In a view that is contrary to most of the generally held beliefs in educational testing and educational reform, the speakers indicated that very high level and creative achievement in the sciences has often come from the neurological resources linked to success in the arts. The speakers indicated that some of those who have excelled most in their scientific achievements are from families with varied visual and spatial talents--ones that often have trouble with words (and where some members may be dyslexic). As we are becoming increasingly aware, there does seem to be a kind of trade off--very early brain development (largely controlled by genetic factors), seems to gain unusual visual and spatial proficiencies at the cost of some lack of proficiency in some language system.

Consequently, there may be various family members who have special strengths in art, design, computer graphics, visual mathematics, mechanics or engineering--yet may have unusual difficulties with reading, spelling, arithmetic, rote memorization or foreign languages. It is all part of a familiar pattern--which is continually repeated with variations generation after generation. The pattern continues through families, parents to children, always different in details but frequently similar in the overall pattern of high visual strengths with notable language difficulties.

Four Nobel Prizes

One of the speakers at the Green College conference was Patience Thomson, the former head of Fairley House School for dyslexics in London and later a publisher (Barrington Stoke) of “books for reluctant readers.” She spoke of her family where there are many visual-spatial occupations in the arts and the sciences and no less that four Nobel Prize winners. She explained that all of the prize-winning achievements had a high visual component. Thus, in a most remarkable example of the larger pattern, in this extended family the exceptional visual and spatial capabilities that had contributed to so much creativity and innovation, seemed to have been balanced by problems in other specific areas.

On her side of the family, the Nobel Laureates were her grandfather Sir William Bragg (1862-1942) and her father Sir Lawrence Bragg (1890-1971). They received a joint prize for x-ray crystallography. On her husband’s (David Thomson) side, the Nobel Laureates were his grandfather Sir Joseph (J. J.) Thomson (1856-1940) for discovery of the electron and his father Sir George Thomson (1892-1925) for discovery of electron defraction.

She spoke of her famous father and the other outstanding scientists in her remarkable family, her gifted children, and the way the power of visual-spatial thinking has colored their lives and has contributed to many of the considerable achievements of the family. Along with the scientists among the Braggs and the Thomsons, there have been several artists, architects, TV producers, computer experts and one actor along with a number of other occupations where the role of visual-spatial proficiencies is not so obvious.

However, in five generations of this family, with many children and grandchildren, there have been a number who have been dyslexic or mildly dyslexic. There are many great grandchildren who are still “too young to tell.” Along with the award medals and family photographs, the exhibition showed drawings and paintings by family members including a self portrait by Sir Lawrence Bragg.

An indicator of the enduring importance of Lawence Bragg's work is that when James Watson wrote The Double Helix--about his discovery of the structure of DNA with Francis Crick--he asked Bragg (their boss at the time) to write the Foreword to his book. The use of x-ray crystallography pioneered by the two Braggs was fundamental to understanding the structure of this molecule that carries all genetic information.

The Art in Medicine

Another speaker at the Oxford conference was Terence Ryan. Dr. Ryan described what turned out to be his own life story as man who was a leader in his field of medicine (dermatology) but had unusual difficulties with his early education and his medical education because of his dyslexia. For example, with exams, he would often recognize accurately symptoms and conditions but would sometimes come up with the wrong Latin names.

However, in his practice and clinical observations, he found he could be a leader and innovator because he could recognize disease patterns that his medical colleagues could not easily see. He suspected that he had greater powers of visual observation than many of his associates. He also thought his dyslexia helped him to be more flexible and innovative in his thinking, coming up with theoretical approaches quite different from others in his field.

As an example of the creative inverted thinking that dyslexics sometimes exhibit, he described one of his own theories, one that is still controversial. Generally, it is taught that skin grows as its lowest layers and older cells allow themselves to rise to the top layers to slough off at the surface. He explained that from his point of view, cells would be unlikely to allow themselves to automatically rise to the top layers--as they would thereby be moving away from their food supply in the bottom layers. Consequently, he uses the novel alternative explanation that the cells which rise to the top are in fact inadvertently pushed out of the way by other cells which are in fact making their own way down toward the nutrient supplies in the bottom layers. In many ways the final result is the same, but the actual process is quite different. Consequently, his associates see him as one of the important “lateral” thinkers in the field.

In spite of his extensive educational difficulties, his medical career has been highly successful. Now retired, he was Clinical Professor of Dermatology at Oxford University and Vice Warden of one of the Oxford Colleges. He has been president of many of the national and international professional societies in his field as well as being active in establishing regional dermatology training centers in Africa and Central America. He is “not easily confined by definitions” which has helped him break new ground and produce about 400 publications. As a hobby, Dr. Ryan does colorful flower paintings--often exploiting visual ambiguities in which it may not be clear whether a garden stair goes up or down or whether a flower is inside or outside a frame.

A Village of Millers and Clock Makers

The Green College exhibition also included information about a family from the village of Blockley, Gloucestershire, England. Blockley was the home of small industries and craft workers long before the Industrial Revolution. Most of the town lies along the spring-fed, “never failing” Blockley Brook, “once a very vigorous stream, which, for a thousand years or more, drove many mills.”

This family showed remarkable continuity over many generations of involvement with occupations that require a high degree of visual and spatial talent--construction and operation of these small leased mills in the village over hundreds of years--as well as barrel making and clock making. One clock made by a family member was in use in a church in a nearby village for over 260 years, from 1695 until 1962.

In 1658, one of the family members (William Warner) emigrated to America (settling in the Philadelphia area) were his descendents continued for generations in occupations and businesses that required talent in mechanics, invention, engineering, art and craft. For example, Joseph Warner was a silver smith in the middle of the 1700s.

It happens that this writer is a descendent of this family on his mother's side. Although at the conference I spoke mainly of the visual-thinking scientists who preceded the Braggs and Thomsons, the Green College exhibition did include oil paintings by my artist parents (Anne Warner West and Charles Massey West, Jr.) and sculpture by their grandson Jonathan. It may be no surprise that within this visually-oriented extended family, there are several possible or diagnosed dyslexics, including myself.

Seeking Family Patterns

I have to admit that when I was originally urged to submit samples of family art for the Green College exhibition, I was interested--but also reticent. However, in time I thought it might be interesting to look at our immediate family and then go back several generations to see what I could find. I think many families with high visual talents (with or without dyslexia) wonder about this sort of thing.

As I noted previously, the neurologist Dr. Norman Geschwind said the dyslexia trait would not be so common and would not persist generation after generation (in its varied forms) if it were not good for something. So, I wondered, did it persist in our own family? If so, what was it good for?

My own parents were artists. They met in art school. Some would expect (not entirely seriously) that this alone might be a strong predictor of some degree of dyslexia in their children and grandchildren (along with some visual talents). I wondered what forms it might take in each generation. So, I thought I would provide a few examples in the exhibition to provoke discussion about the possibilities. Perhaps it will provoke discussion among other visual thinkers and their families as well. (In the process, I came to realize that my book, In the Mind's Eye, is in some ways an attempt to answer the question, “what is it good for?”).

Ever Pushing Toward the Leading Edge

Viewing visual strengths and verbal difficulties over many generations (through many changes in technologies and economies) can be remarkably instructive. Accordingly, we may be led to ask whether it is true (as some believe) that many of the early dyslexics and strong visual thinkers (with reading, writing and language problems) quit their schools and small towns as quickly as they could--heading for the sailing ships and the railroads, the telegraph lines and wind mills, the oil fields and gold mines.

Did they mostly leave the small towns or established cities like London, Boston and Philadelphia -- and seek their fortune (in disproportionate numbers) in places like Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Texas, Alaska and California? Did all the Swedes who could not read (and so were not permitted to marry), really immigrate to America (as one Swedish researcher speculates)?

We may ask: how have varied strong visual traits contributed over time to both school difficulties and to remarkable innovations and inventions, within an ever shifting technological context? Why do these individuals seem to be so often out in front of everyone else -- especially when they seem to be able to move ahead rapidly with the minimum of book learning and paper credentials (while using their special visual-spatial abilities, creative imagination and hands-on skills), often taking great risks?

Why do so many of today’s entrepreneurs and technologists seem to fit this pattern? Why do there seem to be so many of these individuals in places like Silicon Valley? Whatever the time or place, some individuals seem to find ways to get away from the traditional books and the old ways of thinking by creating things that are entirely new. It seems to be a pattern that would be entirely familiar to individuals and families where strong visual thinking is common. Perhaps it is worth looking at some of these families over time to see whether there is evidence of these enduring traits over many generations--visual thinkers doing the things they can do best in whatever technological context is made available to them by their time and place. Perhaps then we could begin to answer the question, “what is it good for?”

From Thinking Like Einstein, chapter 3, “Visual Thinkers and Nobel Prizes.”