Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Narrows 1942, New Version

Note: The story below is based on research currently being conducted by Thomas and Margaret West for a future book on Charles Massey West, Jr., and Anne Warner West, their lives and their art.

The Narrows, 1942

by Thomas G. West

It wasn’t the top prize. But it was major recognition in a major show.

In the fall of 1942, it was a show and catalogue that mainly honored Grant Wood, who had died earlier that same year. Wood had already become an icon of American painting. With images such as “American Gothic,”  “Daughters of Revolution” and “Good Influence” he had linked humor and satire with pride in the simplicity of middle America, using a flat, almost plastic palate, with smooth forms, high contrast and deep shadows -- not commonly seen again until the Pixar computer animation films some 70 years later.

The top prize at the Fifty-Third Annual Exhibition of American Paintings and Sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago had gone to Edward Hopper for “Nighthawks,” a canvas that was to become itself another icon of American painting. Lonely people in a bright diner in a dark cityscape -- familiar in numerous magazine articles, satirical imitations and young persons’ wall posters -- culminating as the central focus of the major show on Hopper in the East Wing of the National Gallery, Washington, DC, that closed January 21, 2008.

Art historian and commentator Robert Hughes called Hopper the most important painter of the period and it is noteworthy that “Nighthawks” is the lone image that spans the backs of his multi-tape video history of American painting.

It is also notable how pivotal  “Nighthawks” was in Hopper’s professional life. One writer notes in the National Gallery show catalogue: “In May 1945, having become famous and successful after his triumph with ‘Nighthawks,’ Hopper was inducted into the National Institute of Arts and Letters.” (Barter, 2007, p. 211.)

For West in 1942, it was not the top prize, but there he was, shoulder to shoulder with the top prizewinners -- prizewinners who have come to represent, over time, the very best of distinctly American art.

West’s short biographical sketch was listed in facing pages with other short sketches of the top prizewinners. Hopper’s bio noted that his “early work aroused so little interest that he gave up painting for several years.”  In West’s bio, his hometown is spelled incorrectly but his study at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia (PAFA, attended 1931-1934; the oldest and most prestigious art school in America) is noted along with his then current teaching position and his award in 1934 of the Cresson Memorial Traveling Scholarship for 4 to 6 months of study in Europe.

It is true that the year before the “The Narrows” had already been shown at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, DC, and published in Art Magazine. But this was somehow different.

In the Chicago show catalogue, there are black and white photographs of the winning paintings. Hopper’s “Nighthawks” is in the middle of the booklet, Plate VII, “Awarded the Ada S. Garrett Prize.”  One page leaf away is “The Narrows” by Charles M. West, Jr., Plate IX, “Awarded the Honorable Mention for Landscape.”

Also listed in the show catalogue were paintings by well-known and not so well known artists of the period whose work was shown but did not win any prize at that exhibition. (The full catalogue listing is quoted below, indented (without quotation marks); comments from this writer are in brackets.) Some of those listed were associated with the Pennsylvania Academy (many now known as Pennsylvania Impressionists) or with the Brandywine School of painters near Wilmington, Delaware. 

Henriette Wyeth, born Wilmington, Delaware, 1907; lives in San Patricio, New Mexico, 233 [ref. number for paintings exhibited in this show], Portrait of N.C. Wyeth. [Daughter of N.C. Wyeth, sister of Andrew Wyeth.]

Peter Hurd, born Roswell, New Mexico, 1904; lives in San Patricio, New Mexico, 133, Prairie Shower. [Husband of Henriette Wyeth; much later famously commissioned to do portrait of LBJ.]

Walter Stuempfig, Jr., born Philadelphia, 1914; lives in Collegeville, Pennsylvania, 218, Family Reunion. [West’s classmate at the PAFA]

Francis Speight, born Windsor, North Carolina, 1896; lives in Roxborough, Pennsylvania, 217, Scene in West Manayunk. [West’s teacher at the PAFA; both were students of Daniel Garber. Speight and his wife Sarah were long time close friends of Charles and Anne West (Sarah was their classmate). Sarah Speight painted a portrait of the young Charles West (at art school) that now hangs in the West Gallery in Centreville. The West family also owns a painting of a Manayunk scene by Francis Speight. ]

Donald M. Mattison, born Beloit, Wisconsin, 1905; lives in Indianapolis, 167, Good-by. [West’s boss at the time. As director of the John Herron Art Institute in Indianapolis, Indiana, Mattison had recruited West, at the University of Iowa, as raising young star teacher.]

Thomas [Hart] Benton, born Neosho, Missouri, 1889; lives in Kansas City, 59, Negro Soldier.

Georgia O’Keefe, born Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, 1887; lives in New York, 180, Red Hills and Bones.

It was not the top prize. But it was a long way to have traveled for the boy from Centreville -- a small river town on the Eastern Shore of Maryland that had been in many ways unchanged for more than a century. The town of 2000 on the Corsica River in a timeless rural area of farmers and watermen on the Delmarva Peninsula, had long been a virtual island between the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean (reachable from Baltimore or Annapolis on the Western Shore only by slow ferry boat or ancient steamer; the two bridges across the bay were not built until the 1950s and the 1970s).

Born in 1907, the young Charlie West had spent his boyhood mostly in the town’s nearby wharf area (not far from the family home on Chesterfield Avenue) -- not unlike Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn -- following the river traffic, absorbing outrageous local superstitions from the cooks, deck hands and travelers, seeing melodramas at Ford’s Floating Theater -- escaping his four older sisters and his no-nonsense, small-town businessman father.

(Ford’s Floating Theater was a tiny theater on a barge towed from river town to river town around the Chesapeake Bay. It is said to be the actual basis for the stories later used in the musical “Showboat.” Charles did several watercolors and paintings of this floating theater.)

(Among Charlie’s close boyhood friends in Centreville was the African American Bush Gaines. They remained good friends throughout their adult years. On at least one occasion, Bush took Charlie to the “Colored-Only” dance hall in Centreville’s “Sandy Bottom” area (the location, near the intersection of South Commerce and Little Kidwell, is now empty). Long gone, the dance hall, called the “Paladoria Inn,” became the subject of one of West’s most loved but least-seen paintings (of the same name). The painting is clearly patterned (in many respects) on the painting “La Danse Au Moulin-Rouge” and especially the “Moulin Rouge -- La Goulue” poster both by Henri Toulouse-Lautrec -- the latter with distant audience, lively dancer in the middle ground and cartoon-like characterization of a man in the near foreground.)

It wasn’t the top prize. But in the fall of 1942, at the age of 35, the recognition received at the Chicago show was special indeed -- a kind of watershed, a balance point in his life as a painter and artist, one generation off the farm.

It was only 11 years before that he had won a full scholarship to attend art school in Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania Academy Country School at Chester Springs, PA.

It was only 8 years before that he had been awarded the top art school prize to travel and study and paint in Europe -- almost losing his life from appendicitis as the grand ship steamed toward France.

At the hospital in Paris, after his operation, he was befriended by a Hungarian Countess and her rich American husband -- and was invited to recuperate at their grand chateau near Paris. In so doing, he saw, first hand, the last days of a style of life -- with lush gardens, expensive cars, grand estates and grander parties -- that was to end forever only five years later.

In his painting, West loved the dash and freshness and vitality of the French Impressionists of the 1870s, 1880s and 1890s. He saw it as a style well suited to the rural landscapes and river scenes that he had known all of his life.

Two years before he had married a fellow art school student, Anne Dickie Warner. Their first son had been born in March of 1941. A second would follow in August of 1943.

The man who later became the head of the Pennsylvania Academy sent a note to the former student: “Dear Charlie: I can only take time for the merest word this morning, but the Chicago Art Institute catalogue has just come to my desk and I see that you have crashed through again. Heartiest congratulations and best wishes for all the Wests! Sincerely Yours, Joseph T. Fraser, November 11, 1942.”

When the Chicago show closed December 10, 1942, America had been at war for its first full year. The art school closed. West was retrained to become a draftsman in the local war industries in Indianapolis.

Thirty years later -- after teaching painting, sculpture and history of art at several schools and colleges, eventually resettling his young family in his own hometown -- at the end of December 1972, at the age of 65, West’s life was at an end. He was buried, with a small family service, along side his parents in the family plot in Centreville, as geese flew overhead in the cold of early January.

His wife Anne turned a small building, former law offices on Lawyer’s Row in the center of the town, into a gallery to honor her husband's paintings and those of others.

West’s father’s dream was that his son would become a lawyer, the top of the social scale of the small agricultural town and county, a northern-most outpost of very Southern rural attitudes and traditions.

It is no small irony that West’s paintings -- his art and his career so much a puzzle to his father and virtually everyone else in this essentially provincial town and rural county -- finally ended up at the center of the law offices that face the old Queen Anne’s County Courthouse. There, property deeds had been exchanged and fought over for hundreds of years  -- land ownership long having been in the area the main path to wealth and social position.

Anne Dickie Warner West -- descended from an old Quaker family of artists and engineers from Wilmington, Delaware, and, previously, Philadelphia (years before the arrival of William Penn) -- lived on for another 34 years of painting and travel and grandchildren and family visits in Centreville and then Chestertown -- passing away in her sleep in the afternoon of November 10, 2006, at the age of 97, just a month short of her 98th birthday.


Art Institute of Chicago, 1942. Catalogue of the Fifty-Third Annual Exhibition of American Paintings and Sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Barter, Judith A., 2007. “Travels and Travails: Hopper’s Late Pictures” in Edward Hopper, Boston, MA: MFA Publications, pp. 211-225. The book was published in conjunction with the exhibition “Edward Hopper,” organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, and the Art Institute of Chicago. Other sections of this book were written by Carol Troyen, Janet L. Comey, Elliot Bostwick Davis and Ellen E. Roberts.

Huisman, P., and M.G. Dortu, 1964. Lautrec by Lautrec. A Studio Book, The Viking Press. New York, NY. (The Moulin Rouge poster and paintings are reproduced on p.  67 and pp. 80-81.)

Note: A series of photographs of paintings by Anne and Charles West, Jr., is available on the web. Instructions: Go to Google, click on images, picasa, request “Charles M. West, Jr.,” then click on this image to bring up the full set of 38 images, request slide show with full screen and commentary text below.

Contact:,, mobile 202-262-1266.
Blog: (See also “Dyslexia: The Unwrapped Gift” on YouTube and Thinking Like Einstein on the website “AT&T Tech Channel.”)

New version, revised, August  2011.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Two books, One talk and a sage mathematician

About Dyslexics: Two Books, One Talk and A Sage Mathematician

(1) Blurb written for The Dyslexic Advantage: Unlocking the Hidden Potential of the Dyslexic Brain by Brock L. Eide, MD, and Fernette F. Eide, MD, Hudson Street Press, publication date, August 18, 2011. “This book is destined to become a classic. After many years studying the talents of dyslexics, I was pleased to gain from the Eides’ systematic investigation a deeper understanding of how and why dyslexics often have a major advantage, working at high levels in many different fields -- and why there is so much misunderstanding among conventional educators and employers. Linking their broad clinical experience with the newest brain research, they illuminate many puzzles -- such as why there are so many dyslexic entrepreneurs, why so many dyslexics choose to study engineering or philosophy, why dyslexics often see the big picture and see linkages that others do not see, why they often think in stories or analogies, and why some of the most successful authors are dyslexic. They explain why reading impairments should be seen as only a small part of the pattern -- that dyslexia is not simply a reading problem, but a different form of brain organization, yielding remarkable strengths along with surprising difficulties. With new technologies and new business models, we can now see how the often remarkable talents of dyslexics will be in greater demand while their difficulties will be increasingly seen as comparatively unimportant. I am enormously grateful to the Eides for explaining why and how this is so -- Thomas G. West, author of In the Mind’s Eye and Thinking Like Einstein” (See listing and separate but related website “Dyslexic Advantage” which has, among others things, many videos of famous dyslexics talking about their dyslexia and/or major accomplishments.)

(2) Harvard-MIT Conference, Learning and the Brain, “Preparing 21st Century Minds: Using Brain Research to Enhance Cognitive Skills for the Future,” Boston, November 18-20. 2011. Talk by Thomas G. West, “Seeing What Others Do Not See: Engines of Discovery for the 21st Century,” Sunday, November 20,1:45-3:00 pm. The wording of the original invitation is worth noting: “We are writing to see if you might be available in the afternoon of Nov. 19 or Nov. 20 to present on your book In the Minds Eye . . . and how those with learning disorders may benefit from their gifts, such as visual and creative thinking, in the technological 21st century, instead of considering them as having deficits [only].” The overall description: “The November conference will explore the cognitive abilities and 21st century skills that will be necessary for students to succeed in the future, including such skills as visual learning, critical and creative thinking, innovation, problem solving. . . . It will also look at the talents gifted students and those with ADHD, autism and dyslexia bring the to the 21st century along with new technologies for identification and intervention.” Speakers include Howard Gardner, Edward Hallowell, Jerome Kagan and Ellen Winner, among others. (See

(3) Excerpts from the “Foreword” by Thomas G. West prepared for Forgotten Letters, an anthology of poems and prose by dyslexic writers. Edited by Nim Folb, Aarhus, Denmark, to be published by RASP, London, England, October 2011. “There are many puzzles and paradoxes linked to dyslexia. One of the most strange of these is that some of the best writers are dyslexic. How can this be so? How can those who struggle so with words become such masters of words . . .? Good writing often requires an ear for the sound of language. Good writing often requires a strong visual imagination with powerful images and metaphors. . . . Oddly, the difficulties experienced by dyslexics sometimes can lead directly to becoming advantages in service of the best writing. Dyslexics are a heterogeneous group. . . . But there are many common elements. They often, almost by definition, learn to read late and very slowly (after a long and difficult struggle). This is partly the reason that many never lose the sound of language in their head -- as sometimes happens with rapid and efficient readers. . . . Many dyslexics find it very difficult to do things automatically -- which can be a problem. . . . Whether training the movements of their body (as in an Olympic sport) or observing nature (in a literary or scientific puzzle), they have to think and think hard. Big brains with many connections move slowly -- but they can do jobs fast brains cannot do. They see the big picture. . . . In my own research on talents among highly successful dyslexics, my literary friends were shocked and disbelieving when I told them that the most severely dyslexic historical person I came across was the Irish poet William Butler Yeats. . . . Everywhere you look there are vivid metaphors and images. About his early life, Yeats says: ‘I was unfitted for school work. . . . My thoughts were a great excitement, but when I tried to do anything with them, it was like trying to pack a balloon in a shed in a high wind. . . .’ I am honored to introduce this volume of the work of dyslexic writers -- sometimes harsh and angry, sometimes as beautiful as a song, sometimes so short and powerful that you feel you have been punched with a boxer blow. But always fresh, truth telling, full of vivid and unexpected sounds and images.” Writers include Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Philip Schultz. See his new book, My Dyslexia, W.W. Norton & Company, 2011, 120 pages. (See and Amazon Books.)

(4) Recently reading a book on the 2008 financial crisis, I was amazed to see five or six references in the final chapter to a rebel mathematician who had warned Wall Street mathematicians and economists decades earlier that their models would work for a while and then they would cease to work and would create or trigger a major disaster. This  mathematician is the high-visual creator of the new field of fractal geometry, the late Benoit Mandelbrot. “In a September 2009 article . . . Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman lambasted . . . economists’ chronic inability to grasp the possibility of massive swings in prices and circumstances that Mandelbrot had warned of decades earlier.” (In The Quants -- How a New Breed of Math Whizzes Conquered Wall Street and Nearly Destroyed It, by Scott Paterson, Crown Business, 2010, p. 291.) There is mounting evidence that this highly creative, innovative, big-picture-thinking mathematician was almost certainly dyslexic, as he told me personally in a joke at an MIT conference years ago. (See In the Mind’s Eye, “Waiting Patterns, A ‘Nomad by Choice,’ ” pp. 286-289 and “The Mandelbrot Set” final page of photo set facing p. 289.) (See also the very high quality production on Mandelbrot, “Fractals -- Hunting the Hidden Dimension,” WGBH NOVA, on the web at PBS and on DVD.)

Contacts and websites: emails,,, mobile, 202.262.1266, blog, See also “Dyslexia: The Unwrapped Gift” (parts 1 and 2) on YouTube and “Thinking Like Einstein,” author series, on website AT&T Tech Channel. 

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Baruj Benacerraf, M.D., 1920-2011

“I would like to thank you for the copy of your book . . . which I read with considerable interest. I wasn’t aware, and I am enormously proud that I share my learning problems with such distinguished characters as Albert Einstein, Michael Faraday, James Clerk Maxwell, Sir Winston Churchill, Gen. George Patton and William Butler Yeats. I found your detailed analysis of the various deficiencies very informative and I think your book is a real contribution to the field.”

Baruj Benacerraf, M.D., letter of August 5, 1994 to Thomas G. West about his book In the Mind’s Eye. Dr. Benacerraf passed away August 2, 2011, in Boston, aged 90. He was Fabyan Professor of Comparative Pathology, Emeritus, Harvard Medical School and was past President of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Boston. A Nobel laureate for discoveries in immunology (1980 Nobel prize in Physiology or Medicine), Dr. Benacerraf was recognized as a distinguished dyslexic in 1988, receiving the Margaret Byrd Rawson Award from the National Institute of Dyslexia. Together with his life-long difficulties with reading, writing and spelling, he observed that he (along with other family members) had a special facility with visualizing space and time -- an ability that he believed contributed greatly to his scientific research and discoveries.


The excerpt below is from the Epilogue of the second edition of In the Mind’s Eye (2009, pp. 346-349) -- and features more recent comments about dyslexia and talent from Dr. Baruj Benacerraf --

Talent Meeting

For several years a small group of researchers has been interested in trying to establish an empirical basis for the hypothesis that dyslexics are more talented in certain areas than non-dyslexics. In recent years, some of these researchers have worked with The Dyslexia Foundation (formerly the National Dyslexia Research Foundation) to move this research agenda forward.

Accordingly, a small meeting was convened at the MIT Conference Center near Boston, Mass. The conference was built around Geschwind’s hypothesis “that the same brain organization that led to language disabilities for dyslexics might also lead to certain high level abilities.”  The goal of the conference acknowledged “that Geschwind’s theory – dyslexics may have special talents or unusual abilities as compared to their non-dyslexic peers – while compelling, needs to be examined with increased scientific rigor.” The meeting participants and planners totaled 22 individuals – including dyslexia researchers, a facilitator and a number of successful dyslexics (a scientist, a photographer, an actor, an accountant, an economist, a TV producer, an educator, a computer graphics artist and inventor). The basic idea was that researchers should listen to the dyslexics as they discuss their successes and strengths – in order to begin to develop new ways of investigating these talents within a scientific context.

According to the meeting report, all the participating dyslexics “agreed that dyslexia is not just reading but a different way of thinking, of processing information; they ‘see’ things differently from non-dyslexic individuals. This could be an ability to make inferences more quickly than non-dyslexics, a visual-spatial approach to problem solving that may be unique to dyslexics, or some sort of unique perception or processing ability.” The general agreement that dyslexia is more than reading is noteworthy. It is even more noteworthy that the capacity to ‘see’ differently comes up in such discussions with truly remarkable frequency -- whether the field is radiology, MR imaging, ultrasound, dermatology or art fraud detection and authentication.

Advantages to be Studied

Similar observations came from Dr. Baruj Benacerraf  -- who is dyslexic, a former head of New York’s Dana Farber Cancer Institute and a Nobel Prize winner in immunology. He was invited to the MIT conference center meeting but was unable to attend. However, he expressed great interest in the dyslexia and talent project -- and said he would be happy to work with the group sometime in the future. Indeed, he made several statements during a telephone conversation that he said he would be happy to have included in the meeting report.

He said (in paraphrase): “Yes, there is definitely a positive side to dyslexia and this should be studied. One can deal with the problems with special techniques and lots of hard work. However, he asserted that there are definite advantages -- seemingly often having to do with distinctive ways of perceiving space and visual material. But these advantages have not been studied. They seem to be little understood and are rarely developed explicitly.” As an example, he spoke of his daughter who is a specialist in ultrasound imaging. He said “she can see things that others cannot or do not see.”

Dr. Benacerraf originally learned of his own dyslexia through the traits diagnosed in his daughter and grandson -- not an uncommon pattern. Of course, he was aware all along of his own reading, spelling, handwriting and other difficulties. In part, he attributes his success in science to his dyslexia – since he believes the dyslexia allows him to have a better sense of time and three-dimensional space than others in his field.

Impossible Figures, Possible Measures

Many valuable insights came out of the MIT Conference Center meeting. However, perhaps the most important development was the general agreement that the thin edge of the wedge in talent research had already been recognized and replicated. Several researchers at the meeting indicated that they had hoped, years ago, to uncover hidden talents among dyslexic children and adults they were studying. They were then greatly disappointed not to be able to document these expectations using conventional testing instruments and measures. However, based on the results of two studies discussed at the meeting, it seems evident that finding talents among dyslexics may require different forms of measurement. In other words, real talents are evident in life and work, but the usual methods of assessing talent do not appear to be appropriate for the task.

Several years ago, one group of researchers hoped to better understand aspects of these talents by comparing visual abilities among dyslexic and non-dyslexic school children. To their surprise and consternation, the first set of tests indicated the dyslexics were mostly slower and less accurate than the non-dyslexic students. There was one exception, however. In one part, the test of what is called “impossible figures” (line drawings of objects not possible to construct in 3D space) the dyslexic children were faster but no less accurate.

Some thought that this was an unimpressive finding. Others felt that this finding might be very important indeed – that it may be all that is needed to make a break into a deeper understanding of the dyslexic kind of brain and its distinctive (and hard to measure) special capacities. This task, unlike others, seemed to tap into apparently distinctive dyslexic abilities -- seeing things as wholes rather than parts and an ability to perform better on novel tasks.

Briefly, it appeared that the other more conventional visual-spatial tests included a number of merely mechanical “traps” which tended to slow the dyslexics and make their answers less accurate -- such as filling in the right circle on the wrong line of the answer sheet. On the other hand, the “impossible figure” tasks seemed well suited to the distinctive abilities of the dyslexics – as well as being relatively free of mechanical “traps.”

With this in mind, a second study was carried out – with substantially similar results, largely replicating the previous study. The results of the two studies were reported in Brain and Language in an article titled: “Dyslexia Linked to Talent: Global Visual-spatial Ability.” In the discussion, these authors observe:

          “Given that individuals with dyslexia typically read slowly, . . . the finding that individuals with dyslexia are faster than controls on any task is surprising. The compelling implication of this finding is that dyslexia should not be characterized only by deficit, but also by talent. Global visual-spatial processing (what we refer to as ‘holistic inspection’) may underlie important real-world activities such as mechanical skill, carpentry, invention, visual artistry, surgery, and interpreting x-rays or magnetic resonance images (MRI). Linking dyslexia to talent casts this condition in far more optimistic light than linking it to a deficit only. . . .  The discovery of talent associated with dyslexia may eventually lead to more effective educational strategies and help guide individuals with dyslexia to professions in which they can excel.”

        Thus, perhaps we might conclude, in spite of initial appearances to the contrary, that in fact the authors of this study and their associates are indeed way out in front by looking at the talents of dyslexics: not only out in front of most other researchers -- but perhaps even out in front of the popular and business press as well.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Wild Side of Math Models

I had written about the late Benoit Mandelbrot in In the Mind’s Eye long ago because of his revolutionary and extremely visual approach to mathematics. More recently, I have been learning that he was almost certainly dyslexic -- which he had partly admitted to me in a joke during an MIT conference we both attended years ago. Then, more recently, I learned more of the extensive practical applications of his fractal concepts -- used, for example, in all cell phones.

But if that were not enough, I now read that he had warned against the mathematical models that crashed Wall Street in 2008. He is referred to several times in Scott Patterson’s book, The Quants -- How a New Breed of Math Whizzes Conquered Wall Street and Nearly Destroyed It.

According to Patterson, “For years, critics on the fringes of the quant world had warned that trouble was brewing. Benoit Mandelbrot, for instance, the mathematician who decades earlier had warned the quants of the wild side of their mathematical models -- the seismic fat trails on the edges of the bell curve -- watched the financial panic of 2008 with a grim sense of recognition.” (p. 295)

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Finding Interconnections

I keep re-reading sections of a new book that is being published this month. I had an advance copy  and was asked to write a blurb (below) for the cover. However, on re-reading sections, I am again even more amazed at the aptness of the observations of the authors -- telling me new things about people whose work I have admired for a very long time.

The blurb --

For The Dyslexic Advantage: Unlocking the Hidden Potential of the Dyslexic Brain by Brock L. Eide, MD, and Fernette F. Eide, MD, Hudson Street Press, publication date, August 2011.

 “This book is destined to become a classic. After many years studying the talents of dyslexics, I was pleased to gain from the Eides’ systematic investigation a deeper understanding of how and why dyslexics often have a major advantage, working at high levels in many different fields -- and why there is so much misunderstanding among conventional educators and employers. Linking their broad clinical experience with the newest brain research, they illuminate many puzzles -- such as why there are so many dyslexic entrepreneurs, why so many dyslexics choose to study engineering or philosophy, why dyslexics often see the big picture and see linkages that others do not see, why they often think in stories or analogies, and why some of the most successful authors are dyslexic. They explain why reading impairments should be seen as only a small part of the pattern -- that dyslexia is not simply a reading problem, but a different form of brain organization, yielding remarkable strengths along with surprising difficulties. With new technologies and new business models, we can now see how the often remarkable talents of dyslexics will be in greater demand while their difficulties will be increasingly seen as comparatively unimportant. I am enormously grateful to the Eides for explaining why and how this is so. -- Thomas G. West, author of In the Mind’s Eye and Thinking Like Einstein

Some sections from their book --

“Several published research studies support the idea that individuals with dyslexia, as a group, show special talents for finding similarities and likenesses. . . .

“. . . Strength in detecting relationships of correlation or cause and effect is a useful skill in many fields, including science, business, economics, investment, design, psychology, leadership, and human relationships of all kinds. . . .

“. . . Another dyslexic scientist who has demonstrated an acute perception of the interconnectedness of nature is Dr. James Lovelock. Lovelock is best known as the formulator of the Gaia hypothesis, which states that the climatic and chemical components of the earth’s crust and atmosphere interact to form a complex system that maintains the earth in ‘a comfortable state for life.’ Lovelock was the first to posit such connections when he noticed subtle correlations in the variations of the chemical composition of the earth’s atmosphere and oceans. While other scientists before Lovelock had recognized that the earth’s atmosphere was almost perfectly suited for biological life, none had realized that this special balance was maintained by the interactions of a tightly linked network of chemical processes: they’d observed the same parts, but missed the interconnections that form the whole system.

“. . . Lovelock already had a Ph.D. in physiology when his growing interests in environmental science and climatology led him to pursue a second doctorate in biophysics. Ultimately, it was this blending of professional perspectives that suggested to him that the earth’s biosphere might be understood and studied as if it were a kind of physiological system.”  (Dyslexic Advantage, pp. 81-92)

Friday, July 22, 2011

A Dyslexic Poet -- William Butler Yeats

Recently, I was rereading the profile of William Butler Yeats from In the Mind’s Eye. I was reminded of what an interesting man he was -- and how much his story can teach us, even now. Below, I have inserted a section from that profile.

In the absence of basic knowledge of how to deal with dyslexia, several courses of action are possible. Both Faraday and Edison dropped out of school and were educated by their mothers, more or less--later taking personal responsibility for their own extensive self-education. Einstein's relationship with the conventional school system alternated between grudging toleration and active resistance, until he too dropped out, but at a much later and more risky stage; fortunately, his experience at the unusual progressive school at Aarau allowed him to get back on track, to some extent, reviving his serious interest in his studies and allowing him to pass his university entrance exams on his second attempt. Patton was tutored at home until he was ready to enter the conventional stream. Churchill limped through the conventional upper-class educational system, but his real education does not seem to have begun until he started his own self-study program as a young adult, while stationed with the British Army in India.

In the time of Yeats, Churchill, Patton and Einstein, in contrast to the time of Faraday, school systems had become more pervasive and it had become increasingly difficult to skirt the conventional system without severe consequences. In the face of the squeeze of conventional and universal educational methods, Yeats seems to have accidentally found himself in an acceptable and helpful alternate route:  stay in less demanding institutions until one's special abilities have begun to mature. During the early years in London, Yeats may have, in fact, been better off at a school that was less challenging, at least initially, in order to give him time to develop at his own pace and in his own way.

Parents and teachers may fault schools for not teaching certain skills at the expected ages. In most cases of learning difficulties, the best strategy seems clearly to be early identification and remediation. But in some cases, where delayed maturity in some specific area is a major factor,  it may be best to take the pressure off and merely wait for a while. In these cases, it may be that too much pressure on remediation of certain skills, too early, is not only wasteful but destructive, especially when the pressure comes from a heavy-handed classroom teacher rather than a specially trained tutor.

After the move from Ireland to London, Yeats' first school was run by a clergyman who was more concerned with gentility and athletics than scholarship. Regarding one student who was poor in Greek but good in cricket, Yeats explains that the head master would comment: “Oh, leave him alone.” As for Yeats himself:

“I was unfitted for school work, and though I would often work well for weeks together, I had to give the whole evening to one lesson if I was to know it. My thoughts were a great excitement, but when I tried to do anything with them, it was like trying to pack a balloon in a shed in a high wind. I was always near the bottom of my class, and always making excuses that but added to my timidity; but no master was rough with me. I was known to collect moths and butterflies and to get into no worse mischief than hiding now and again an old tailless white rat in my coat-pocket or my desk.”

One suspects that sometimes it may be better to let some things slide, at least for a while (but always trying to make progress in certain areas of strength).  If the neurologists are correct about the possible advantages of delayed maturation and the process of gradually learning to “guess” better based on greater life experience (among other things), then it would appear that the dyslexic (and those more or less like them) could sometimes use to advantage plenty of extra time. That is, if maturation really is a major factor in the course of development for the gifted dyslexic (with or without identification and remediation), then perhaps the first best guide is to be patient and make educational arrangements that do the least damage to the child's self-concept while ensuring that high-quality content is provided in any way possible--until the late bloomer is suddenly ready to take off, racing past many of his peers.

Yeat's recurrent reference to his active mind is accompanied in the above passage by an apt and powerful metaphor, as one might expect--“it was like trying to pack a balloon in a shed in a high wind.” It is also notable that he described himself as near the bottom of his class--and that he chose to use a small animal for distraction in class exactly as Susan Hampshire had done as a student. In varied times and varied situations, the incidental similarities between the people we are considering can be quite striking.

The advantages of the earlier (less demanding) school may be more apparent in comparison with his later school experience. At 15 years of age, Yeats went to a new school at Harcourt Street in London which was much more difficult and demanding than his previous London school had been. He explains:

“I had not thought it possible that boys could work so hard. . . .  Even had I never opened a book not in the school course, I could not have learned a quarter of my night's work. I had always done Euclid easily, making the problems out while the other boys were blundering at the blackboard, and it carried me from the bottom to the top of the class; but these boys [at the Harcourt Street school] had the same natural gift and instead of being in the fourth or fifth book were in the modern books at the end of the primer; and in place of a dozen lines of Virgil with a dictionary, I was expected to learn with the help of a crib a hundred and fifty lines. The other boys were able to learn the translation off, and to remember what words of Latin and English corresponded with one another, but I,  .  .  .  made ridiculous mistakes; and what could I, who never worked when I was not interested, do with a history lesson that was but a column of seventy dates? I was worst of all at literature, for we read Shakespeare for his grammar exclusively.”

The irony is poignant.  But the work was unrelenting. He learned his Latin lesson well once and then he was chided for not knowing it all the time. “No one knew that I had learnt it in the terror that alone could check my wandering mind.”

A curriculum more ill-designed for Yeats'  kind of mind can scarcely be imagined. All of the subject matter seems to have been converted into cold data to be memorized (where those with skill only in memory could still shine), while Yeats' areas of interest and strength, whether literature or history, were transformed into further frigid and lifeless difficulties.

Even his skill in geometry, the touchstone for so many of our visual thinkers with learning difficulties, was discounted for Yeats, not only by his school and peers, but also by his own otherwise supportive father: “ ‘Euclid,’ he would say, ‘is too easy. It comes naturally to the literary imagination.  .  .  .’ ” In spite of this, Yeats' interest in geometric concepts persisted in curious ways in his subsequent creative work. This interest also provides a glimpse at his propensity for a curious form of visual thinking in this later work.

For example, one of the dominant images he used in some of his most admired later poems was that of the “gyres.” These were seen as two cones or vortices, one inverted inside the other, so that each vortex, according to Yeats’ description, formed “from itself an opposing vortex, the apex of each vortex in the middle of the other's base. . . .”  This visual image was used to embody the basic concept of generalized inverse proportion or reciprocal action--that is, in various aspects of life and nature, as one thing increases, another diminishes, and vice versa.

Thus, curiously, the poet draws on deep mathematical concepts to find  patterns to shape his poetry. Thus, one of Yeats’ most important images is a kind of three-dimensional geometric model, one which entails a form of conic sectioning--where any moment in time is a slice through the two cones (perpendicular to the axis of rotation), giving two circles, one increasing in area as the other decreases in area over time--as one circle shrinks to a point and another point expands to an ever larger circle.

So, we have come full circuit. Earlier, we considered visual-thinking scientists, mathematicians and inventors who thought in analogies and images like a poet. In Yeats, we see a poet who repeatedly uses major images and archetypal analogies that are in effect three-dimensional geometric models--essentially mathematical patterns in their conception and application.

Eventually, Yeats, like so many dyslexics, had to make the best of his very limited academic and professional options. And also like so many dyslexics, he chose to pretend to his parents that his decisions were more a matter of personal preference than bitter necessity. (After all, the appearance of being in control is really quite important.) Thus, when Yeats told his father that he would not go to Trinity College Dublin as three generations had before him, he preferred to have it seen as self-assertion or rebellion--but he confided: “I did not tell him that neither my classics nor my mathematics were good enough for any examination.”

Yeats went on to arts college because he had few other options. Yet, unlike his more conventionally successful peers, he was driven on by an unflagging, childlike enthusiasm and a relentless passion. Yeats never did learn many of his “basics.” He probably never would have done well on anyone's examinations of achievement. However, in time, he became the leading poet in the Irish Literary Renaissance and the central playwright in the establishment of the Irish National Theater. He made extensive use of traditional Irish legends and tales, but he never could learn to speak Gaelic. He had hated studying history as it was taught but became a major figure in the making of history and sat as a Senator in the new Irish Parliament. He followed his father's advice and did not concern himself with making money, yet he directed the committee that selected the designs for the distinctive coin series of the new Irish state. He was slow to read. Yet, in time, he learned to compose a distinctive and musical verse that is still among the most widely read English poetry of this century. He never became anything like a scholar. Yet, in time, his work would be recognized by a Nobel Prize for Literature and hundreds of scholarly books would be written about his life and works. In time, he learned to write. But he never learned to spell.

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Puzzle of My Own Early Education

Suffield Academy Alumni Leadership Award -- Presentation April 18, 2011 -- by Thomas G. West, Class of 1961

I want to thank the Alumni Association, Headmaster Cahn and the Suffield Academy Community for this award. I am especially grateful for this honor because, when I was student here, I imagine there was no one in our class less likely to be honored decades later.

“I was happy as a child. . . . I have been happier every year since I became a man. But this interlude of school [made] a sombre grey patch upon the chart of my journey. . . . All my contemporaries and even younger boys seemed in every way better adapted to the conditions of our little world. They were far better both at the games and the lessons. It is not pleasant to feel oneself so completely outclassed and left behind at the beginning of the race.” (Churchill, My Early Life, 1930, pp. 38-39.)

These are not my words. They are the words of Winston Churchill writing in 1930 of his early life and education. His greatest test and chief accomplishments were not to begin until 9 years later. But his words perfectly reflected my own feelings at the very beginning of my three years at Suffield. Fortunately, those three years provided, in many ways, a major turning point in my life -- and my feelings were quite different three years later.

I had arrived as a slow walking, slow talking country boy from a rural and very Southern part of the Eastern Shore of Maryland -- now considered highly fashionable and largely unspoiled -- but then considered backward and economically depressed. My older brother and I were from this border state -- but for the New England and New York boys, we might as well have come from Mississippi or Alabama.

We worked very hard. And I was highly motivated. In my early schooling, I had learned to read imperfectly and very late and had unusual difficulties with many school subjects. This was a puzzle to my teachers and a worry to my otherwise supportive parents. Even in a comparatively undemanding rural school system, I could barely keep up. I could hardly read anything out loud. Foreign languages were a humiliation. I could learn almost nothing by rote. I could not memorize. I could not retain exact texts. I had to have time to ponder and think. I had to understand. I needed to know the story. I had to visualize. Then, I would never forget.

I knew nothing of my own dyslexia at the time. I was not diagnosed until some 20 years later. But I did know that there were many things that I could not do -- that were quite easy for others. I saw Suffield as my chance to catch up -- and fill in some of the gaps. Initially, my greatest ambition was to avoid being at the bottom of the class.

But over time, things began to change. The talented teachers, the disciplined routines, the absence of distractions at Suffield helped me to focus and learn how to build on my own strengths. And, although I was never any good at team sports, doubtless the (required) regular practice and exercise helped me to grow and develop in many ways as well.

Gradually, the increasingly high level content began to change what was wanted and what I could produce. Gradually, everything changed. The higher level curriculum began to play to my strengths rather than my weaknesses.

Before, I had trouble with arithmetic and math facts, but in time I came to love geometry, log tables and the slide rule. (Yes, this was long before pocket calculators and computers. So hard to believe.) I had trouble with foreign languages, but loved linguistics and the history of language. I still had lots of trouble with spelling and my slow, faltering reading -- but I began to see that I seemed to have a special knack for following logical arguments, complex story lines and higher level conceptual thinking.

Gradually -- strangely -- by the senior year, I felt that I was getting more out of the readings than many or most of my classmates. I can still recall, in some detail, almost all of the readings we did during that senior year.

After Suffield, I went to a small liberal arts college (Gettysburg) which proved to be the right place, on the whole, for the further growth of the abilities initially developed at Suffield. Remarkably, I majored in English Literature and Philosophy (so many books to be read and understood) and later did graduate work in International Relations.

After graduate school and military service, I was employed by several engineering and consulting companies where I worked in early computer management information systems (NIMH and NIDA), surveys of medical care quality (SSA), energy policy (DOE), international trade (DOC) and, eventually, renewable energy development projects, resource surveys and training for engineers in Egypt funded by USAID.

Throughout these work experiences, I found ways around my weaknesses and ways to exploit my talents. I had little technical training, but -- usually working with engineers, economists or computer programmers -- often I found I could easily understand most technical concepts and programs. I could write about them, explain them in ordinary language and, eventually, manage them as well.

However, I didn’t really begin to understand the patterns of talent common among dyslexics -- until our own two sons started having problems in their early years of primary school. The idea that they were going to go through what I had gone through -- this was a great emotional shock for me. Suddenly, I realized that I had to understand this thing that had been running my life -- and, in part, the life of my dyslexic artist father as well as other family members, more or less.

So I had myself tested for dyslexia. I attended dyslexia conferences and started the research that eventually became the book, In The Mind’s Eye. I learned that almost all the professionals in the field wanted to fix reading problems, but that they mostly ignored the special talents that many dyslexics have. My research and book focused on these talents as no other book had done before -- the neurological foundations, the case studies and profiles of famous people and the growing role of new computer graphic information visualization technologies.

To my surprise (and to the delight of my publisher), over time, the book became a classic -- an “evergreen,” as they say in the trade, a book that never stops selling.

I suspect that the strong focus on dyslexic talents is the reason that the book is still very much alive today -- and still regarded as radical new thinking -- twenty years (this month) after it was first published. Even the university librarians liked it -- it was selected as one of the “best of the best” for the year by the American Library Association (one of only 13 books in their broad psychology, psychiatry and neuroscience category). With 16 printings and a new second edition in English, the book has been translated into both Japanese and Chinese. A Korean translation will be available later this year.

Over time the book came to be highly regarded in many quarters. To my great delight, Oliver Sacks (the famous author of Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat) came to write in the foreword to the new edition: “In the Mind's Eye brings out the special problems of people with dyslexia, but also their strengths, which are so often overlooked. . . . It stands alongside Howard Gardner's Frames of Mind as a testament to the range of human talent and possibility.”

During these years, I have been invited to give talks and workshops for scientific, medical, art, design, computer and business groups in the U.S. and overseas, including groups in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Hong Kong, Taiwan and twelve European countries.

Also, I came to be asked to write a regular series of articles on the broad effects of visualization technologies for a quarterly publication of the international professional association for computer graphics artists and technologists -- an organization with many creative dyslexics. These articles were finally collected into a book with the title: Thinking Like Einstein.

I am now working on a third book, this one dealing with high level creativity and brain diversity -- including dyslexia and Asperger syndrome among other alternative modes of learning and thinking -- focusing on individuals and families, including one British family with (over five generations) many visual thinkers, many dyslexics and four Nobel Prize winners.

Attitudes toward the special talents of dyslexics have been changing, but very slowly. Gradually, non-dyslexics are beginning to see why it is important to have dyslexics involved in their businesses or their scientific research. As is often observed, they “see things that others do not see or cannot see.” 

During the years since my book was first published, dyslexia is gradually coming to be seen, remarkably, as a significant advantage in an increasing number of fields -- often linked to success in design innovation, entrepreneurial business and scientific discovery. One of the founders of the modern study of molecular biology was dyslexic and described to me how he used his powerful visual imagination to observe the interaction of molecules and see new patterns 12 years ahead of all others in the field.

The National Science Foundation is currently funding a Harvard-Smithsonian study of when and where dyslexia may be an advantage in doing science, especially within astrophysics. In the field of computer graphics and simulation, dyslexic artists and technologists are often leading innovators. Recently a new website and book have been published with the tile, "Dyslexic Advantage." A world famous professor of paleontology tries to teach his graduate students how to “think like a dyslexic” so they can see patterns invisible to others, sometimes doing things long thought impossible. The rest is “just memorization,” he says, without innovation or significant new discovery.

No one could be more surprised that I am with the wide and continuing interest in my books and the ideas they contain. However, I have never forgotten that my first steps along this path were taken here at Suffield Academy. And, as I started my book research long ago, it was more than a small comfort to know that Winston Churchill, for all his major achievements as a leader in time of crisis, had also -- once -- been at the bottom of the class -- feeling “completely outclassed and left behind at the beginning of the race.”

Contact: Thomas G. West, author of Thinking Like Einstein and In the Mind's Eye (One of the "best of the best" for the year, American Library Association; new revised edition with Foreword by Oliver Sacks, MD, released September 2009). Research Scholar Study Office 1W-16C, National Library of Medicine. Institutional address: Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study, Member of the Advisory Board, 4400 University Drive, MS 2A1, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia 22030-4444. 
Email: or 

Videos: Two videos are available on the web which deal with visual thinking, visual technologies and the talents of dyslexics -- along with the two books by Thomas G. West:

(1) In December 2010, West was asked to travel to New York to be filmed as part of a new author series developed by the “AT&T Tech Channel.” At this website click on Science & Technology Author Series, “Thinking Like Einstein.” About 17 minutes. Other than West’s books, generally the books discussed on this site are very technical.

(2) Recently placed on YouTube, “Dyslexia: An Unwrapped Gift.” Shot in “The Chained Library” of Hereford Cathedral in England, this video features Thomas West along with several dyslexic British teenagers who were filmed while they were coming to understand their own special areas of talent. Silva Productions, 1999, a classic film still popular and often shown in UK education circles. Still widely believed to be the best documentary for capturing the attention of dyslexic teens. Provided on YouTube in two parts, about 9 minutes each.

Awards: In 2008, the Wye River Upper School, Wye Mills, Maryland, established the annual student prize: “The Thomas G. West Achievement in Digital Arts and Technology Award.”  In 2010, West was presented with the Siena Cypress Leadership Award given by the Siena School, Silver Spring, Maryland. The award honors “individuals who make significant and lasting contributions to the education of children and young adults with learning disabilities.” In 2011, West was selected to receive the Alumni Leadership Award by Suffield Academy, Suffield, Conn. Recipients of the award are recognized for their “ability to make a significant, lasting, and positive impact on the world” together with their “attainment of professional excellence, demonstrated leadership, . . . and contributions to the betterment of our society.”

Kids Designing Tests for Dyslexic Talents

Greetings. Sorry for long delay. More to come now, finally. I will start again with a brief story that stays in my mind. Recently, I gave a talk at a school for young dyslexics. In my slide series I made reference to the need for new assessment tools to properly measure the talents of dyslexics. Then, I rephrased my statement and said: "I want to design a test where dyslexics will get the top score and non-dyslexics will get the bottom score." To my surprise, the room broke out into loud spontaneous applause. I had not expected this. It had never happened like that before. Clearly, they are hungry for this. And I realized this was a project the kids should work on. Have them just jump in. Try to figure out what they are good at -- and how to measure it. They will repeat what is already known -- but it will be theirs. They will know how they got there. But they will probably come up with many new things as well -- or new attention to things that were thought to be unimportant. They will likely use new technologies and approaches not used by the well-trained professionals. They will be highly motivated. It would be like hands-on ("problem based") medical training. You start with the patient and just keep asking questions. They will better understand the old tests. They will be proud of creating some new tests and approaches. They will be proud of their own thoughtful observations. They would learn much. We would learn much. I think of this daily.