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.


  1. Thank you for sharing these remembrances and quotes for Dr.Benacerraf. They are a source of inspiration for dyslexics everywhere, even as they look for dyslexia resources to lead a successful life.

  2. I think this is great! I actually met a dyslexic filmmaker in college. He was working on a documentary to help spread awareness about dyslexia and trying to give advocates the backing they need and deserve.. just like every kid should be able to learn how to read. I'm helping him out with this project. I hope other decide to do so too!

  3. Prof Prem raj Pushpakaran writes -- 2020 marks the 100th birth year of Baruj Benacerraf!!!