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.  


  1. Absolutely Agree Tom.

    I shall be giving a presentation at a conference in Bari, Italy, on 22 May called, 'Dyslexic Students; Excellent Learners'. For too long we have judged the nature of 'successful learning' by success in exams. This rarely measures 'learning', but more usually memorising of sequence. Real excellence in learning results in understanding. The holistic (pattern or design)approach to learning (which is not always visual, but is more often than not) taken by many of us results in understanding and the capacity to innovate and problem solve. This is clearly far more important than memorising and simply reproducing old solutions. It is interesting, is it not, that many of the fields in which dyslslexic and other holistic learners excel, such as comedy, screenwriting, movie making, acting, sports, poetry, entrepreneurs, artists, musicians and song writers, do not just have creativity and imagination in common, they also do not require exam success. Exams are a significant barrier to learning, and to real success.

    An important issue is why are the educational barriers to learning maintained? A sociological view is that structure determines outcome. Step-by-step teaching and teacher specified outcomes (and barriers between subjects) are held in place by the underlying social function of school to fail a significant proportion of the population and persuade them it is their own fault. This maintains the illusion of meritocracy and reproduces social power relationships in society while looking like education is a 'good thing'. In effect, we are unintended casualties of this system. But when you try and change it, it resists with surprising strength because of the underlying function.

    For this reason (that it has a political dimension), I have developed the Holist Manifesto which argues that we are entitled to learn in ways that suit us. (see that no less than the survival of the world depends this social change.

    Keep up the good work! It seems that more and more of us are saying very similar things (even if we differ about some of them). Who knows when the dams will burst. Every little step counts!

    1. Dear Dr. Cooper, Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I will have a look at your website and manifesto. I may also quote (and credit) your remarks sometime. Hope this is okay. Maybe keep a conversation going. We need a critical mass. BTW, I will be giving a talk in Trieste, Italy, at the ECIDD conference, June 14-16. And if you are not familiar, please do have a look at the new book by the Eides. My book, of course, has been around forever. And, finally, I say to you, "keep up the good work." -- Tom West