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.”


  1. I was busy researching family history for William Warner of Blockley UK and read your interesting article. I design gardens,my daughter is a film producer in NY and my son is a musician, linguist and woodworker..fascinating considering the family propensity.

  2. This is a beautiful entry, heartening to read. I am an undergraduate student, just one year away from completing my degree in Physics at the University of Chicago. I continually find challenges and difficulties conforming to the rote, linear methods of teaching and studying Physics at this school, as it is becoming ever-more clear that I am a very right-brain dominant thinker. In fact, I have just learned that one aspect of my challenge is my mild math-dyslexia! It is nearly impossible for me to write lines and lines of numerical formulae without jumbling and mixing them up! In conjunction with this is my ADD-personality; I was first diagnosed with the condition in my second year of college, and am still discovering the many ways in which this personality type is both a blessing and a burden!
    However, with no family members that have gone before me to "explore the world" with college degrees and dynamic careers, I am on my own to find the niche where my thinking style may be welcome. (My parents are both ADD and right-brain dominant, my grandparents never attended school formally, and survived as farmers on their inherited homesteads.)

    I am most interested in the places that seem to harbor these "rogue" right-brain visual-spatial thinkers, and the clever ways in which they craft their places in the world.


  3. Dear M. Viola,

    Sorry to be so late in replying to your comment. You are very much on target with what we are trying to do. I will send you more shortly.

    Tom West and

  4. Charles Darwin suffered from mild dyslexia which may be associated with his primary disorder, an inherited mitochondrial abnormality known as the Cyclic Vomiting Syndrome. As is common with dyslexics he had great difficulty learning a foreign language and with making verse. He had great powers of observation and I wonder if these observational powers may be more common in dyslexics.
    John Hayman

  5. excellent post. I've been reading this blog since the first entry and I think it is an amazing initiative.

  6. Jack S. Kilby is right he always knows what to say and which the exact mommnet to do it is. They just have to talk and try to defense thier theories in a good way.

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