Wednesday, May 23, 2012

TV About Richard Branson

Recently reviewed an old UK TV program that some of you may find interesting. 

Below are the words of Richard Branson and the program narrator -- 

Narrator: “Dyslexics already run some of the world’s leading businesses. Despite the memory gaps and an aversion to long reports and figures, Richard Branson says being dyslexic has given him a business edge.”

Richard Branson: “I think I will look for the bigger picture. I will base my decisions on personal experiences and gut feelings. You can awaken strengths that non-dyslexics don’t necessarily know exist – or don’t use enough. There are other dyslexics I have met who take a similar, broader approach to these issues.”

Narrator: “Battling against dyslexia has given [Branson] his drive in life.”

Branson: “I love testing myself to see what I am capable of. The first twelve years of my life I was a failure. I was bottom of the class in almost every class at school. I am always trying to prove something to myself – and trying to get other people around me to prove something to themselves – whether it is my entrepreneurism or my adventurism. . . .”

The entire UK  Channel 4 TV program finishes with this quotation from Branson: “[To have people] understand that people with dyslexia are not necessarily thick in everything is quite important.”

Source and Credits: “Dyslexic Genius.” One in a series of three programs on different aspects of dyslexia. Along with Branson, this program features other highly successful dyslexics: an actress, a furniture designer, a computer game designer and a feature film maker. Produced by Twenty Twenty Television for Channel 4 Television. Executive Producers: Claudia Milne and Iain Bruce. Director and Series Producer: Dan Clifton. Thomas G. West was interviewed in Britain by Dan Clifton for the making of this documentary. West also had a very short appearance in this documentary film – shot by a UK film crew at the US National Library of Medicine in Bethesda, Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Building a Nervous System for Gaia

James Lovelock says we are all part of Gaia, not separate. The tiny microbes -- ones that we hardly knew existed some centuries ago -- give us oxygen and control the planet's temperature, making the planet safe and comfortable (more or less) for all life -- unless we overwhelm them.

Now, he says, with our computers and fiber optics we build for Gaia a fast nervous system she never had before. This is part of our job here it seems. How long before nearly everyone on the planet has a mobile phone or smart phone?

You build a nervous system with fun and nonsense first -- keeping the lines full of stuff moving back and forth -- making long and short connections in every direction. Then once it is in place, you might do something important with it -- when the time comes. What is a tiny baby doing while still in the womb?

Tiny processes. Big ideas. Massive consequences.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Neurological Diversity -- Seeking Diverse Brains as Engines of Discovery

In recent months, I have redrafted various arguments in an effort to persuade heads of companies, research institutes and other organizations to seek out and hire creative dyslexics, among with others with diverse brains – since there is mounting evidence that they may be able to do work that is more creative than those with brains well suited to academic success but poorly suited to original discovery or fundamental innovation.

Accordingly, I have proposed that these organizations make it an explicit part of their mission to include and employ diverse individuals with diverse kinds of brains for their potential as “engines of discovery.”

As many of you know, I have advocated this approach for many years. However, resistance to these ideas and approaches remains strong.

Some misunderstand my intention and see the proposal as a way to be kindly and charitable to a disadvantaged population – whereas my intent is to make the case that these people can (and in many cases will) be a major benefit to the organization – not the other way around.

Others appear to almost understand the great unused potential -- but then they fall back into conventional thinking -- claiming that such individuals should not be sought out because they could not gain corporate promotions or academic tenure.

What, indeed, are we mainly interested in here? Major discoveries or innovation? Or mere conventional credentials (however impressive).

Maybe this is a way of selecting truly innovative organizations – separating them from those who merely claim to be innovative.

Below, I have listed some of the arguments I have been using. I welcome comments and suggestions for stronger and more persuasive statements.

Alternative Modes of Learning and Thinking

Several organizations have long studied (as subjects) individuals with dyslexia, Asperger’s syndrome, ADHD and other alternative modes of learning and thinking.

It is now proposed that this organization make an explicit effort to hire and do what is needed to support these individuals, focusing not on what they cannot do, but, rather (given a chance and the right environment) what some of them can do better than anyone else.

This proposal is consistent with the desire within the organization to be a source for major scientific discoveries and technological innovations – and as well as a major theme and vision for the future of the organization.

Frequently, the focus has been on what is wrong and finding out how to fix it. However, it is becoming more and more clear that in some (or many) cases the focus ought to be on finding out what is right -- and finding ways to bring unusual mixes of talents and capabilities to bear on leading-edge research and technological problems.

New Assessments and Expectations

Part of this process would inevitably involve the development of new assessment tools to help identify the subset in each group that would have the greatest potential for substantial innovation and discovery.

It is axiomatic that many of these individuals will have unusually great strengths in some areas while they will have surprising (even shocking) weaknesses in other areas.

Recognition of such patterns of mixed talents would, of course, need to be part of an enlightened institutional culture. Otherwise, conventionally successful employees would think “how can they be expected to do x when they cannot even do y and other similar simple tasks.” Or, how could they be selected “when their grades and test scores are so low and uneven.”

In a longer-term solution, it is hoped that, in time, these individuals will score highly on another set of tests and measures that have yet to be designed. (In a recent presentation to a audience of young dyslexic students, one speaker called for the design of new tests on which the dyslexics would get the top scores while the non-dyslexics would get the lowest scores. The speaker was surprised to hear this audience, previously attentive but quiet, break out into spontaneous and enthusiastic applause.)

Another part of this process would be developing administrative and workplace procedures that would allow these individuals to survive, prosper and be productive in work environments that seem (at least initially and indirectly) to be well designed to weed out many of these same individuals.

If this approach is sound, the result might be expected to access previously untapped talents – resulting in a substantial increase in important innovations and discoveries relative to more conventional approaches and working conditions.

It Is About Time To Take Advantage of Diversity

There is mounting anecdotal and empirical evidence that the major discoveries and technological innovations sought by major research institutions come (sometimes or even often) not from the students with the best academic records but, rather – from students with mixed records, from junior faculty with doubtful prospects, from experts trained in  apparently unrelated fields or from creative non-academic entrepreneurs whose fresh insights and unexpected discoveries can transform a field.

There are many stories of remarkable discoveries from those trained in unrelated fields or those with mixed capabilities.

Yet in spite of these stories, conventional methods for selection and advancement persist – while extremely talented individuals are routinely dumped along the wayside.

It seems that it is about time to change this situation.

For example, in recent years, dyslexia is 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. 

Researchers have recently observed a strong ability among some dyslexics to see clear patterns in extremely complex systems – or to have an unusual capacity to predict how a news story will unfold or how a trend will produce unexpected results.

One of the founders of the modern study of molecular biology was dyslexic and described how he used his powerful visual imagination to see new patterns and develop fundamental insights (in one case, twelve years ahead of all others in the field) into the links between the genetic code and the immune system. Later, a different scientist proved experimentally that he was correct and received a Nobel Prize.

The US National Science Foundation has been 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.

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, making discoveries of processes long thought impossible. The rest is “just memorization,” he says, without innovation or significant discovery.

Some companies (such as Google) are now investigating ways of making the workplace better suited for employees with greater neurological diversity.

Some researchers are now focusing on high-level creativity, visual thinking and new visual technologies – focusing on the role of brain diversity (including dyslexia, Asperger’s syndrome and other alternative modes of learning and thinking). 

There are more and more examples -- including one British family with (over five generations) many visual thinkers, many visual occupations, many diagnosed dyslexics (especially in the last two generations) and four winners of the Nobel Prize in Physics.  Two of these prizes are related to the development of x-ray technologies used in the discovery of the structure of DNA.

For further reading: See the recent book, The Dyslexic Advantage: Unlocking the Hidden Potential of the Dyslexic Brain by Brock L. Eide, MD, and Fernette F. Eide, MD, Hudson Street Press, Penguin Group, 2011; especially, Chapter 2, “Dyslexia from Two Perspectives,” pp. 10-18, and Chapter 4, “Differences in Brain Structure,” pp. 30-43. Also see, In the Mind’s Eye: Creative Visual Thinkers, Gifted Dyslexics and the Rise of Visual Technologies, Second Edition, with Foreword by Oliver Sacks, MD, Prometheus Books, 2009; Chapter 8, “Patterns in Creativity,” pp. 225-247.  

Monday, March 26, 2012

Test of Time

Working on an article on visual thinking. I just reread some of my sections on Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell -- with quotes from them and about them. I had forgotten how wonderful and timeless much of this material is. Gets to the heart of the matter -- although much is nearly 200 years old. But, of course, I first went to them based on comments and high respect from Albert Einstein. Go where the best minds point you. Always worth your time. The best stand the test of time and are never dated. Do not search only the current literature in a limited field. 

Sunday, February 5, 2012

NYT Opinion, The Upside of Dyslexia

Nice article in NY Times this weekend saying what some of us have been saying for two decades and more. The business press often has had articles like this over the years. Glad these ideas are continuing to be printed and read.

From The New York Times:

OPINION: The Upside of Dyslexia
...See More
The condition makes it harder to learn to read. But it also seems to offer visual advantages.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

More archive than web log

Greetings to you all,

I apologize for the long gaps in my entries for this blog. However, I plan at least a brief flurry of activity in the next few weeks. There seems to be a significant shift in attention toward the talents of dyslexics -- the topic that has long interested me and many of you. So, as they say, "stay tuned." You may find the short piece below of some interest as well. 

I was invited to prepare this "Foreword" for Forgotten Letters, an anthology of poems and prose by dyslexic writers. Edited by Naomi Folb, Aarhus, Denmark, the book was published by RASP, 11 Thameswalk, Hester Road, London SW11 3BG, England, in October 2011. 

Included in the anthology is a prose excerpt from the second edition of In the Mind's Eye, “Amazing Shortcomings, Amazing Gifts,” and poems by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Philip Schultz. His book, My Dyslexia, W.W. Norton and Company, 120 pages, was also published in 2011. (Forgotten Letters is available from Amazon Books UK and

All best wishes for the new year,



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? Well, good writing is not spelling, reading aloud and rapid recall of memorized texts.

Good writing often requires an ear for the sound of language. Good writing often requires a strong visual imagination with powerful images and metaphors communicated through the words. Often the best writing is very plain, using well the most simple language. Also, good writing requires fresh language -- not the usual string of conventional terms and syntax. Good writing is thoughtful and sometimes surprising in its content and form.

Oddly, the difficulties experienced by dyslexics sometimes can lead directly to becoming advantages in the best writing.

Dyslexics are a heterogeneous group. They are unlike non-dyslexics. They are unlike each other. But there are many common elements.

They often, almost by definition, learn to read late and very slowly (often after a long and difficult struggle). This way they never lose the sound of language in their head – as happens with rapid and efficient readers.

They often have powerful visual imaginations -- seeing pictures in their minds as they read or speak. Some of the best storytellers say they never remember the words of a story. Rather, they have a movie running in their head and they simply talk about what they see. You don’t have to be dyslexic to do this. But dyslexics seem to do this naturally -- whether they want to or not. But as one can readily see, if you do not or cannot remember texts as texts -- but only see images -- then the words are likely to be different each time. Sometimes fresh. Sometimes shockingly apt.

In recent years, some researchers are discovering that the particular formation and wiring of dyslexic brains may lend itself to retaining information mainly in story form. These same wiring patterns may also create a tendency to make connections between distant and apparently unrelated things. These long-line connections in the brain can produce fresh and unexpected metaphors and similes (as well as entrepreneurial insights and scientific discoveries).

Often I have heard the phrase, “they see things that others don’t see or cannot see.” I have heard the phrase a thousand times, in a thousand different settings. It is not only having strong powers of observation. There is something going on in these larger than usual, slow moving, apparently overly connected brains that yields perceptions and insights often denied to non-dyslexics -- who may see the unexpected connection when shown. But they would never see it on their own.

Some say dyslexics are prone to ponder. Non-dyslexics may have a look, see what they have been taught to see, say the expected words and quickly move on -- scoring high on conventional tests. (This drives artists crazy. So many of the clever students learn the words to say about a painting and then they think they understand it. But they never learn to really see it.)

Dyslexics often have trouble learning to do anything automatically -- which can be a problem. It can be very slow. Whether training the movements of their body (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. Those who ponder hold on to an idea or problem or puzzle for a long time, turning it over and over. In literature, sometimes they come up with a fresh and deep insight. (In science or technology, sometimes they come up with a remarkable and unexpected discovery.)

It is a commonplace that the best artist or writer is an outsider, observing human events at the edge. Again, many non-dyslexics can take on this role. But many dyslexics, because of their deep humiliations from the earliest days, naturally assume the role of distant observer. The truth-talking commentator who is not caught up in the race. They have felt the otherness from the start.

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 person I came across was the Irish poet William Butler Yeats. It teaches us. Even in times unfriendly to formal poetry, his lines show up in songs and commentaries and book titles. He said that he often started with a rhythm, a pulse, and the sense then followed. He never lost the sound of the language.

And everywhere you look there are vivid metaphors and images. About his early life, Yeats said: “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.” A few years before his death, he observed: “It was a curious experience . . .  to have an infirm body and an intellect more alive than it had ever been, one poem leading to another as if . . . lighting one cigarette from another.”

I am honored to introduce this volume of the work of dyslexic writers -- sometimes harsh and angry, sometimes 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.

Thomas G. West
August 2011

Contacts, websites: E-mails,, See also “Dyslexia: The Unwrapped Gift” (parts 1 and 2) on YouTube and “Thinking Like Einstein,” in the author series on the website “AT and T Tech Channel.”