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)