Monday, January 25, 2010

Talents Among Dyslexics, Roundtable Discussion

I thought that some of you might be interested in a roundtable discussion I organized for a conference earlier this month. The topic is still remarkably controversial among professionals in the field. I plan to carry on the same discussion informally at a conference in Paris next week -- and plan to summarize the continuing debate in future blogs. Your questions and comments are welcome. -- Tom West

IARLD Conference (International Academy for Research in Learning Disabilities) -- Miami, Florida, January 16, 2010.

Roundtable Discussion, 1:30 - 2:30 pm

Special Talents Among Dyslexics:

Do They Exist?

Should They Be Researched?

Abstract: This Roundtable Discussion will focus on the pros and cons of dramatically increased research on the strengths and talents that appear to be closely associated with developmental dyslexia. The session coordinator has long been a strong proponent of looking seriously at the apparent special abilities of those with dyslexia (within great variety). The topic tends to be controversial. Some researchers and practitioners feel that there are really no special talents -- or rather, there are no talents that are valuable in a conventional academic context. In contrast, many highly successful dyslexics claim their success comes from their dyslexia. Others argue the talents are distributed in the same way as in the non-dyslexic population. Still others argue that there is no cogent theoretical base for a proper research program. And finally, some are uncomfortable about discussing strengths and talents since it may yield disappointment among those individuals with little or no apparent talent -- or it would confuse funding agencies that are unwilling to provide funds for investigations of strengths and talents rather than handicaps and deficiencies. Proponents argue the great importance of identifying and developing such talents as a foundation for self esteem as well as informed future educational and occupational success -- especially at a time when trends in computer information visualization technologies favor the high visual and creative capabilities that many dyslexics possess, as many conventional academic skills become less and less important in a rapidly emerging global economy.

Contact Information:

Thomas G. West (Session Coordinator): Author, In the Mind’s Eye and Thinking Like Einstein. Institutional address: Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study, Member of the Advisory Board, 4400 University Drive, MS 2A1, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia 22030-4444, USA. Tel.: 202-262-1266. Email: or Blog:

Summary of Presenter Viewpoint : Thomas G. West

From the time of the earliest researchers (in the 1890s) until Samuel Torrey Orton (in the 1920s) and Norman Geschwind (in the 1980s), the central puzzle of dyslexia has always been the linkage of high ability in some areas with remarkable and unexpected difficulties and disabilities in other areas. For more than a century we have recognized this pattern, but have generally focused on only one aspect. With the best of intentions, we have learned much about how to remediate the problems that dyslexics experience but we have done almost nothing to develop a deeper understanding of the varied and hard-to-measure talents that many dyslexics possess.

Highly successful dyslexics nearly always say that their accomplishments and special ways of seeing come directly from their dyslexia -- not in spite of their dyslexia. I believe we should take them at their word and give credence to what they say.

Most professionals in the field agree that talents are important, but eventually they almost always come to focus almost exclusively on reading and academic remediation alone. We need to change this, especially as major technological and computer information trends tend to favor the visual strengths that many dyslexics have as their traditional academic weaknesses become less and less important.

I believe the time has come to be serious about trying to understand the talents of dyslexics -- to do the other half of the job. Accordingly, I believe that it is time to think about building a bold and ambitious plan of research and practice that will focus primarily on talent.

The major intent of this initiative would be to build a program with its primary focus on understanding and developing the strengths and talents that dyslexics have -- rather than mainly focusing on areas of remarkable weakness. To build a bold program that would, in time, be as large as all current academic remediation programs in effort, resources and impact on the lives of dyslexic children and adults.

As a dyslexic myself, I feel a growing sense of personal responsibility to dyslexics as a group. I feel the need to substantially change the course of what we are trying to do within the field. I feel we need to seriously embrace a radical change now or there will be no change at all -- allowing additional generations of dyslexics to suffer needlessly -- while also wasting distinctive talents that are greatly needed by the society and the economy at large as we enter an age of great uncertainty on many fronts. We should recognize that we badly need the big picture thinking, creativity, innovation and original insights that appear to be the signature contributions of the most successful dyslexics.

Selected articles and books by Thomas G. West: In the Mind's Eye: Creative Visual Thinkers, Gifted Dyslexics and the Rise of Visual Technologies, second edition with Foreword by Oliver Sacks, MD, 2009, Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books. ‘The Gifts of Dyslexia: Talents Among Dyslexics and Their Families,” Hong Kong Journal of Paediatrics, 2005, vol. 10. pp. 153-158. Thinking Like Einstein: Returning to Our Visual Roots with the Emerging Revolution in Computer Information Visualization, 2004, Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books. “Secret of the Super Successful . . . They’re Dyslexic,” 2003, Thalamus, vol. 21, no. 1, pp. 48-52. “Visual Thinkers and Nobel Prizes,” Computer Graphics, ACM-SIGGRAPH, 2001, February issue.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

AARP Interview on Visual Thinking

Just got the link to the AARP interview I did a few months ago. Nice job of editing 30-minute interview down to 5 minutes. Includes quick bits on Churchill, GCHQ and Jack Horner. Link is below.

The Late Bloomer's Advantage

It is often observed that one of the essential characteristics of creativity is the "childlike" view of the world, full of freshness and plasticity. As they grow older, most children gradually lose this view. Most children appear to shift their thinking to a more rigid left-hemisphere dominance at a given age, as is expected. But it seems that some children cannot shift to the usual one-sided dominance so readily; they are delayed in the maturing process; they grow up using both sides of their brain or mature with a greater facility with their right hemisphere than is usual. This may lead to some degree of confusion, ambivalence, and awkwardness, but the intellectual resource may be profoundly richer thereby, and that makes all the difference.

Maturity is a key concept here. Maturity suggests responsibility, conventional education, having children, understanding the adult world and finding a place in it--making one's way or doing one's duty. A small child cares little for these things. He or she is too busy discovering the world, examining things closely, seeing how they behave, trying to figure out how things work, how people respond when you do different things--touch, sounds, smells, tastes, images--and all of this starts well before words or numbers. All of this is play--learning and discovering.

While maturity is, of course, necessary to make one's way in the adult world, we are aware that it is good to preserve something of the child, especially if we desire the freshness of view that seems to promote real creativity. This is generally known and understood. However, what is not generally known is that it may be a good thing when the maturing process takes a little longer than usual.

Parents are usually pleased when their children mature quickly, becoming more independent, more organized and more self-directed in advance of their peers. What is not generally known is that late maturation can serve a useful function, although it seems to contradict conventional belief.

The neurological evidence indicates that the onset of puberty stops further neurological development. That is, neurological development is not speeded up by early puberty. Rather, early puberty appears to arrest neurological development at an earlier and less fully developed stage. One neurologist observed: “The studies show that on the average . . . quick development means you sort of ‘gel’ earlier and you don't develop as fully. It is not just true for brain development; it is true for growth also. People who grow slowly tend to grow taller.” Accordingly, it is possible that the early developer may be good at what they can do, but they may be able to do less than the child or adult who has developed over a longer period.

With respect to creativity, the freshness of the child's view is not to be underestimated. When the world of the small child is properly understood, then perhaps it is no surprise that Einstein said he was led to his discoveries by asking questions that "only children ask." This view of himself is clearly evident in the following curious passage: “I sometimes ask myself . . . how did it come that I was the one to develop the theory of relativity. The reason, I think, is that a normal adult never stops to think about problems of space and time. These are things he has thought of as a child. But my intellectual development was retarded, as a result of which I began to wonder about space and time only when I had already grown up. Naturally, I could go deeper into the problem than a child with normal abilities.”

If delayed development is acknowledged as one major factor, then the child-like playfulness of this strong visual thinker may have been another. Einstein sometimes referred to the source of his ideas as "playing" with "images." When he describes the process in his own words, the fresh, childlike plasticity of the ideas and the interplay of the two hemispheres seems clearly evident: “The words or the language, as they are written or spoken, do not seem to play any role in my mechanism of thought. The psychical entities which seem to serve as elements in thought are certain signs and more or less clear images which can be ‘voluntarily’ reproduced and combined. There is, of course, a certain connection between those elements and relevant logical concepts. It is also clear that the desire to arrive finally at logically connected concepts is the emotional basis of this rather vague play with the above mentioned elements. But taken from a psychological viewpoint, this combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought--before there is any connection with logical construction in words or other kinds of signs which can be communicated to others. The above mentioned elements are, in my case, of visual and some of muscular type. Conventional words or other signs have to be sought for laboriously only in a secondary stage, when the mentioned associative play is sufficiently established and can be reproduced at will.”

An indication of the possible effects of delayed maturation is provided by a study conducted by neurologist Martha Denckla. In some cases, delayed development in certain skills may prevent, initially, the proper performance in a range of related skills. Using a test called "map walking," Dr. Denckla shows, however, that with time surprisingly high performance may suddenly appear in the same individuals who performed so poorly a short while before. The reason for the change is that initially some component of the skill was not functioning in a full and proper manner. But once that one component begins to function, the capabilities of all the other related components can come to be applied to the task as well.

In test situation described by Denckla, a grid of dots is placed on the floor. This grid corresponds to a grid of dots on a piece of cardboard held in the subject's hand. A pattern is sketched on the cardboard grid and the subject is asked to follow this same pattern along the grid on the floor. The study results showed a surprising reversal of relative performance of different groups over time.

In a dramatic illustration of this variation on the "late blooming" pattern, those who did the worst, eventually became the best--once a certain maturational threshold had been crossed: “The younger dyslexic children, that is, children below the age of 10 years (and therefore prepubertal) had the worst performance of the three groups, as measured by walking these routes correctly. A startling "late blooming" effect, however, shone forth in the data on children over 10 years old. The teenaged dyslexic group, and in particular the familial dyslexic adolescents, demonstrated superior performance on this test. . . .”

And in another passage, Denckla puts the study into perspective: “. . . Some of the previously presented data . . . on the shift during the second decade of life from poor map-walking to good map-walking and from poor copying of design to adequate copying of design, as well as the anecdotal accounts of late blooming in dyslexics, may be related to maturation to some adequate threshold level by some critical system within the left hemisphere. Such a maturation would then allow the superior capabilities of the right side of the brain to be allied with the now-adequate motor analyzer or motor programmer within the left hemisphere. . . . Thus, what had been ‘money in the bank’ can now be usefully withdrawn and displayed.”

The pattern of delayed maturation is not only an important trait of dyslexics, it is also an important trait of all human beings--when compared with other animals. Biologists explain that it is a dominant human trait to mature much later than other animals. Human infants must be protected longer by their parents and society.

However, during this helpless early period, the human infant is still building brain structures and connections in the same way it was while in the uterus. The rate of growth for the brains of primates and other mammals diminishes greatly soon after they are born. However, for periods of up to a year after birth, human infants show the same rate of brain growth and development that they had shown in the uterus prior to birth.

It is as if nature had chanced upon this strategy as a way of extending gestation well beyond the limits of what a normal birth canal would allow--permitting extended development of the brain in size and complexity well beyond what would have been possible otherwise. Apparently, as in the common expression, the parents and society do, in fact, in a very real sense, provide an extension of the womb. And in an extraordinarily fundamental way (in contrast to common belief), this extension (and consequent delay) can be seen as a very good thing indeed.

In The Dynamics of Creation, Anthony Storr points out that "the human infant . . . is born in a particularly dependent and helpless condition, and remains in this state for a relatively longer time than the young of many other species." He notes further that "at the anatomical level, it has long been recognized that human beings continue to display, in adult life, characteristics which in other species of primates, belong to the foetus, and which generally disappear or are superseded in the mature animal." Finally, Storr observes: "Many parents, reflecting ruefully upon the emotional and financial commitments involved [in normal human delayed maturity], might be glad to see their offspring mature and become independent at a very much earlier age. But if they did so, they would bypass much of what makes them human and civilized; for the price of culture is delayed maturity."

Adapted from In the Mind’s Eye, second edition, September 2009, where full references are provided.