Monday, June 23, 2014

Dyslexic Advantage in Computer Graphics, SIGGRAPH 2014

Greetings SIGGRAPH Participants --

Here is my 30-word entry, with affiliations, etc. – set out as in the existing “Birds of a Feather” listings on the website for SIGGRAPH 2014—Vancouver, B.C.  Below is a copy of my original proposal – providing additional details for those interested. -- TGW

The Dyslexic Advantage in Computer Graphics

TUESDAY, 12 AUGUST 9:00 AM – 11:00 AM, ROOM 124

Some estimate that about half of the people in CG are dyslexic. Among the very best, some believe all are dyslexic. There may be very good reasons for these observations.

Thomas G. West, author of In the Mind’s Eye and Thinking Like Einstein
Affiliations: and The Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study


Below is the full text of my previous proposal with reviews and comments from several SIGGRAPH folks and others --

Proposal for SIGGRAPH 2014 – Vancouver, BC, Canada – August 10-14

The Dyslexic Advantage in Computer Graphics

By Thomas G. West, author of In the Mind’s Eye and Thinking Like Einstein

Some computer graphics professionals claim that half of the people in the CG field are probably dyslexic. It is also observed that some of the most talented CG teams may be as much as 100 percent dyslexic. It is a pattern often observed in the CG field but almost never discussed. In this “Birds of a Feather” session, Tom West will provide some history and background for these connections -- and invite discussion among interested attendees.

In recent years, dyslexia is coming to be seen, remarkably, as a significant advantage in an increasing number of fields -- often linked to high visual talent and substantial success in art, architecture and computer graphics – as well as design innovation, entrepreneurial business and scientific discovery.

As hard as it is for many to believe, in recent years in many fields, it is becoming increasingly clear that dyslexics are capable of creating scenes and devising solutions that are beyond the reach even the smartest non-dyslexics. It is also becoming increasingly clear that all of this is because of the dyslexia, not in spite of it.

Recently, a small group of researchers is finding more evidence that dyslexia does not result from damaged wiring in the brain as many have long believed. Rather, in cases of developmental dyslexia, they see an alternative (a different but valuable) wiring pattern – one that involves some early educational difficulties – but one that provides many alternative strengths and capabilities not available to non-dyslexic brain structures.

There are many cases of this paradoxical mix of weaknesses and substantial strengths. It is becoming increasingly clear that these are not unusual but are representative of an important subgroup that needs to be understood in both education and work – especially within computer graphics and related fields.

The power of visual thinking is often not understood. For example, one of the founders of the modern study of molecular biology was a powerful visual thinker and a classic dyslexic, with the usual reading and writing problems in his early schooling. As he progressed into laboratory work he found that he could predict the results of many experiments. He found that he could use his powerful dyslexic visual imagination to see interactions at the molecular level – seeing new patterns and developing fundamental insights and new theories (twelve years ahead of all others in the field) about the links between the human genetic code and the development of the immune system. Later, a different scientist proved experimentally that he was right and received a Nobel Prize.

In other examples – the 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 UK, the dyslexic head of the Virgin Group explained long ago that his dyslexia has been a motivator in building his group of more than 250 companies as well as giving him a “business edge.” And, of course, in the field of computer graphics and simulation, dyslexic artists, scientists and technologists are often leading innovators.

A dyslexic professor at Columbia University has written a book about how he was able to integrate complex information (in a manner similar to many dyslexics) from extremely diverse sources to understand how historic changes in ocean currents have led to abrupt climate change in the past.

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 long thought impossible. The rest is “just memorization,” he says, without significant discovery or true innovation.

Very recently, in a striking example, the British electronic intelligence agency GCHQ announced publically, “Dyslexia is Britain’s secret weapon in the spy war: Top code breakers can crack complex problems because they suffer from the condition. GCHQ bosses say those with the disorder see things in codes others do not. The Chelteham-based agency has set up a dyslexia support group.” One agency official noted that “dyslexia may in other circumstances be regarded as negative – but most people only get to see the full jigsaw picture when it’s nearly finished while the dyslexic cryptographists can see what the jigsaw looks like with just two pieces.”

An increasing number of researchers and practitioners believe that learning from the lives of highly successful dyslexics and visual thinkers can lead to new insights and approaches that will help dyslexics and non-dyslexics alike -- profoundly transforming fundamental ideas about education and work in a time when computer technologies are rapidly turning the world upside down and the established education and psychology professionals seem to have lost their way.

Accordingly, they say it is high time for us to begin to recognize and understand and learn how to deal with these puzzling extremes in talent – the unexpected academic weaknesses that are often associated with special capabilities and success in both life and work. Schools, they say, almost never teach or test what dyslexics are good at – but life does. This is especially true for the many artists and technologists who work in computer graphics.

Bio Sketch
Thomas G. West is the author of In the Mind's Eye: Creative Visual Thinkers, Gifted Dyslexics and the Rise of Visual Technologies (Prometheus Books), selected as one of the “best of the best” for the year by the American Library Association. A second edition was released in September 2009 with Foreword by Oliver Sacks, MD, who states: “In the Mind's Eye brings out the special problems of people with dyslexia, but also their strengths, which are so often overlooked.  Its accent is not so much on pathology as on how much human minds vary. It stands alongside Howard Gardner's Frames of Mind as a testament to the range of human talent and possibility.”
In the Mind’s Eye was published in Japanese translation in as Geniuses Who Hated School. A Chinese translation was published in 2004. A Korean translation was released in 2011. In connection with In the Mind's Eye and his other writing, Mr. West has been invited to provide presentations for scientific, medical, art, design, computer and business groups in the U.S. and overseas, including groups in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Dubai-UAE and twelve European countries.
For seven years West wrote a regular column, “Images and Reversals,” on the broad effects of visualization technologies for Computer Graphics, a quarterly publication of ACM-SIGGRAPH. These columns were collected into a book with the title: Thinking Like Einstein: Returning to Our Visual Roots with the Emerging Revolution in Computer Information Visualization.

In recent years, West has been invited to speak on dyslexia and talent at a Harvard-MIT brain and education conference, at Magdalen College of the University of Oxford in England, the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Malta, the University of Trieste in Italy, the Arts Dyslexia Trust in London, England, and an education conference in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. In 2013, West gave a talk on creative visual thinking, computer graphic information visualization and dyslexia at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, California and presented a Director's Colloquium on a similar topic for scientists and staff of NASA Ames Research Center (at Moffett Field in California’s Silicon Valley). In 2014, West participated at a conference of in San Francisco and will be giving a keynote and a series of talks on dyslexia and talent at the Cosmos Club in Washington, DC, at the Landmark College Summer Institute in Vermont and at the Dyslexia Association of Singapore in Singapore.

Videos and Contact Information

Videos: Two videos -- and a more recent set of talks – available on the web dealing with visual thinking, visual technologies and the talents of dyslexics -- together 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 for the website called “AT&T Tech Channel”-- Science & Technology Author Series, “Thinking Like Einstein.” About 17 minutes. Other than West’s two books, generally, the books discussed on this site are very technical.

(2) On YouTube, “Dyslexia: An Unwrapped Gift.” Shot in “The Chained Library” of Hereford Cathedral in England, this video features Thomas West (with others) along with several dyslexic British teenagers who were filmed when 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--as well as suggesting the new world of visual technologies where many dyslexics currently thrive. Provided on YouTube in two parts, about 9 minutes each.

(3) See on YouTube many short talks from the April 2013 and March 2014 conferences on the talents of dyslexics; key words “Dyslexic Advantage.”

Contact information: Thomas G. West, author of Thinking Like Einstein and In the Mind's Eye.  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 

Selected Reviews -- In the Mind’s Eye

 “The computer is the most malleable tool we’ve ever invented. The Turing revolution, which brought it to us, has proceeded over its 60-year history to absorb field after field of human endeavor. First was simple number crunching. Then text processing, table making, pie charting, data basing, and a host of other, more sophisticated, fields have gone digital with the new tool as human brain amplifier. Visualization is the latest domain to become “ordinary” this way. Tom West argues that the legitimacy of visualization as a first-order attack on problem solving is therefore being established after generations of quiet use by only some creators -- and some of the best at that. He claims that visualization is not only a legitimate way to solve problems, it is a superior way: the best minds have used it. West urges us to join the dyslexics of the world and use pictures instead of words. In the process we get fascinating glimpses of how other minds have worked -- minds that have changed the world.”

Alvy Ray Smith, electronic mail message. Dr. Smith was co-founder of Pixar Animation Studios, former Director of Computer Graphics at Lucasfilm, Ltd., and Graphics Fellow, Advanced Technology, Microsoft Corporation. At Pixar, he formed the team that proceeded to create Tin Toy, the first 3-dimensional computer animation ever to win an Academy Award. This team later produced the first completely computer-generated motion picture, Toy Story. At Microsoft, he designed the multimedia authoring infrastructure for Microsoft third party developers and content producers. While he was a Regent for the US National Library of Medicine, he was instrumental in inaugurating the Visible Human Project. 

Selected Reviews and Comments  -- Thinking Like Einstein

“West . . . has compiled a set of essays [which are] engaging on their own; together they explore the issues of visualization from many perspectives. . . . . He makes a compelling case for the growing importance of visualization as a powerful agent of change. . . . The book is very readable and will attract a wide audience -- anyone interested in better understanding the importance of visualization and some of its history. Summing up: Highly recommended. All levels.”

R.A. Kolvoord, James Madison University, Choice magazine (a publication of the Association of College and Research Libraries of the American Library Association), vol. 42, no. 08.

“ ‘ There is increasing evidence,’ writes Thomas G. West, . . .  ‘that many highly original and productive thinkers have clearly preferred visual over verbal modes of thought.’ West argues that our traditional letter- and-number-based education . . . has changed little from that of the medieval clerks. ‘Written language is a technology,’ he claims, and technologies change: ‘[T]he kind of brain that lends itself poorly to an old technology may be just what is wanted with a new technology.’ West doesn’t mean television and other information-poor screen-based technologies; he means the visual literacy of patterns and the creative use of computer graphics, which, he argues, will put an end to the tiresome, age-old tension between word and image. Computers in the classroom, he writes, allow students to ‘move rapidly on to high-level conceptual matters and a variety of practical problems,’ as opposed to such old-fashioned exercises as calculus sets and memorization. These are path-breaking essays. . . . ”

Susan Salter Reynolds, Los Angeles Times Book Review.

“Drawing on a series of columns that he wrote for [ACM-SIGGRAPH] Computer Graphics magazine, West . . . postulates that we are on the verge of a new era of visually-based thinking that will replace traditional word- and number-based modes of teaching and learning. He is quick to point out that this world of visual imaging is quite different from ubiquitous television images comprising low information content and no interaction, citing as classic examples Albert Einstein as well as some contemporary pioneers in the forefront of visualization technologies. West explains how these individuals are working to infuse visualization technologies into education and business. This is not a how-to book . . . but instead a persuasive, provocative argument for the societal benefits of visual thinking. Recommended for all computer science collections.”

J. J. Accardi, Library Journal, vol. 129, no. 16.

“In this exciting and captivating set of essays, Tom West makes a strong case for fundamentally rethinking and revising our educational system by including visual literacy to balance our overdependence on analytical approaches. The book explores the role visual thinkers have played in creating scientific breakthroughs, and it makes a compelling case for a future when individuals will develop their full creative potential by ‘returning to our visual roots.’ I am envious of the author's writing skill as well as his ability to weave, with diverse facts and stories, a string of pearls.”

Michael McGrath, Professor of Engineering, Emeritus, Colorado School of Mines; Formerly Education Director, ACM-SIGGRAPH

“This book is a fascinating look at the history of the relationship between logical and visual thinking. There are aspects to this history that are both frightening and encouraging, and, with the current pendulum swing back toward visualization as a respectable thinking tool, it provides an important guide to what has been done before and what can be done in the future.”

James F. Blinn, Graphics Fellow at Microsoft Research; Columnist for IEEE Computer Graphics; MacArthur Fellow; Recipient of the ACM-SIGGRAPH Achievement Award and the Stephen Coons Award

Thinking Like Einstein is a refreshing intellectual drink in the drought of contemporary visual literacy. It raises important issues and historical facts that restore the balance of power between nonverbal/visual creative thinking and verbal/math creative thinking. The book is a valuable tool that recognizes the potency of data-driven digital visualization and empowers our visual technological futures. It is a must-read for any visualization educator.”

Donna Cox, Director of Visualization and Experimental Technologies, National Center for Supercomputing Applications, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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