Sunday, June 28, 2015

Considering 'Obsolete' Matters

I always pay attention when my mind returns repeatedly to certain themes. On reading Oliver Sacks’ new autobiography, On the Move, I was struck by his observation that many smart, technically-trained people seem to care little about history -- even the history of thought and discovery within their own professional fields. Sacks takes the opposite view – along with other highly productive investigators such as the late Harvard neurologist Norman Geschwind – who found insightful and useful observations in relatively early literature.

“At UCLA,” says Sacks, “we residents had a weekly ‘Journal Club’; we would read the latest papers in neurology and discuss them. I sometimes annoyed the group, I think, by saying that we should also discuss the writings of our nineteenth-century forebears, relating what we were seeing in patients to their observations and thoughts. This was seen by the others as archaism; we were short of time, and we had better things to do than consider such ‘obsolete’ matters. This attitude was reflected, implicitly, in many of the journal articles we read; they made little reference to anything more that five years old. It was as if neurology had no history.”

“I found this dismaying,” says Sacks, “for I think in narrative and historical terms. As a chemistry-mad boy, I devoured books on the history of chemistry, the evolution of its ideas, and the lives of my favorite chemists. . . . It was similar when my interests moved from chemistry to biology. Here, of course, my central passion was for Darwin. . . . I loved his autobiography most of all.” (Page 102.)

So much of my own research for In the Mind’s Eye was based on the historical perspectives elaborated by Norman Geschwind and his student Albert Galaburda in Cerebral Lateralization and elsewhere. It also happens that the dyslexic molecular biologist at Caltech, the late William J. Dreyer, no lover of long books, contacted me, became a close friend and gave me just two books – a history of molecular biology that explains his heretical discovery of deep fundamentals in this new field – and his own favorite book, the autobiography of Charles Darwin. 

It is as if the longer view of history helps the truly creative and innovative thinker to move beyond the clutter and fashion of their own time to make genuine contributions to expanding human understandings. Those with the short view, however brilliant (their heads full of current data), seem blinded and locked into the belief structure of their own narrow time – whatever its flaws, limitations and wrong-headed approaches.

My own current favorite is Darwin’s Armada in which Australian author Iain McCalman tells the story of how four long sea voyages (by Darwin, Hooker, Wallace and Huxley) provided a radical new heretical perspective on the natural world – and how the four fought and eventually joined to “Battle for the Theory of Evolution.”

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Leonardo as Mirror-Minded Dyslexic

With historical figures like Leonardo, you just define what you are looking for and examine the available evidence. Never, never trust the "experts" or the biographers, who generally know nothing about the brain. For me, long ago, the mirror writing seemed an important puzzle. The experts said it was to keep his meanings hidden. I thought this idea was just plain silly. I thought there was some deeper meaning. About 20 years later, I realized it was brain based and not that uncommon, really. Then I read a paper by an Italian neurologist who had found distinctive dyslexic patterns in Leonardo's journals. Based on this, I included Leonardo in my first book, In the Mind's Eye. Previously, I had avoided dealing with him altogether. He was just too big a topic. Yet. in a way he had been quietly sitting on my shoulder through years of research. Finally, I had found the evidence that illuminated the long-standing puzzle. Over the years since, I have gotten to know a good number of mirror writers and mirrored minds. I have come to understand that the real secret is that so many have learned to pretend that they cannot do these things. They choose (with rare conspicuous exceptions) to pass as non-mirrored in a non-mirrored world.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Many dyslexics, late blooming

Some of these issues have come up recently and I thought it was useful to post them here. This is summary of research considerations quoted from my paper "Amazing Shortcomings, Amazing Strengths," from the Asia Pacific Journal of Developmental Differences, vol. 1, no. 1, January 2014, pp. 78-89. Especially note why there are so many dyslexics and the late blooming pattern. 
"Important alternative research trends and perspectives have been becoming more apparent recently. The Dyslexic Advantage organization (with which this writer is associated) has recently formulated a strategy for research progress built around the following series of observations:
"It is increasingly clear that dyslexic individuals do not only differ from non- dyslexics in the ways they process written language. Rather, they differ in the ways they process almost all kinds of information. Consequently, researchers now see that they will need to study more than reading and writing.
"In addition, dyslexic individuals are seen to share common strengths as well as areas of difficulty – and these strengths usually involve brain functions unrelated to reading. Indeed, the strengths of dyslexics provide the reason that there are so many dyslexic individuals in the human population – that is, the dyslexic wiring pattern in the brain has been selected over long periods of time as a favorable trait and this provides the basis for achieving such high prevalence.
"Increasingly, researchers are becoming more aware that dyslexia is a late- blooming profile. The strengths of dyslexics are often more apparent later in development than the strengths of many non-dyslexics. Consequently, because these strengths are more apparent in adults than children – when the nervous system is fully matured – it is now seen as important to study dyslexic adults, including those who are excelling in their lives and work as well as those who continue to have difficulties.
"Another important observation within the Dyslexic Advantage perspective is that it may be inherently difficult to measure the things that many dyslexics are good at. Dyslexic individuals often excel in complex high-level cognitive tasks.
"Consequently, researchers believe they need to develop more creative research approaches and testing methods capable of measuring these high-level skills and talents. These researchers are learning to re-examine dyslexic children in light of what they have learned about the mature adult dyslexic brain. This way, they hope to be able to better understand the true nature and significance of what they observe in the earlier stages of development.
"To emphasize this last point, the Dyslexic Advantage organization has chosen to adopt the image of the butterfly as the institutional logo and symbol – believing that one can only see what the dyslexic brain is 'trying to become' by considering its mature form. If one were to study caterpillars only, one would never guess that this fat, ugly worm with so many legs is ultimately destined to fly high and far on wings of iridescent beauty. (Personal communications, Dyslexic Advantage, October 2013.)"
Thomas West
1 November 2013

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Dyslexic Talents for New Economy

Note: I will be working soon with folks at Dyslexic Advantage on research -- and I am reminded of a section I wrote for second edition of In the Minds Eye. I thought some of you might be interested in seeing an excerpt -- see below (without quotation marks).

I am not arguing, of course, that all dyslexics have great talents -- nor that all non- dyslexics are blind to the talents of dyslexics. But I believe we do need to consider that the kinds of talents they do have, great or small, may be just the kinds of talents that are invisible to conventional teachers and conventional tests and conventional measures of academic ability. This is why I feel that developing a whole new family of tests and measurement instruments is so critical.

In the ways of the world, it is a simple truth that one cannot be considered to be really bright unless there exists some test on which you can get a top score. And, as we have been trying to show throughout this book, there are many talents and abilities that are important in life and work that are never measured by conventional psychological and academic tests. This needs to change.

To do this properly, we will probably have to get highly successful dyslexics involved in the process because many conventional educators and test designers may be quite unable to see what needs to be measured, how it can be measured and why it is important. Old habits of thought are hard to break. But perhaps, once again, we will need to rely on dyslexics to “see what others do not see or cannot see.”

Clearly, it is time to develop new ways of assessing the strengths and weaknesses of students as early as possible. Sometimes great abilities can be hidden beneath striking difficulties. Sometimes, we are beginning to see, the kid who is having a lot of trouble with reading or spelling or arithmetic may turn out to do very well indeed with astrophysics or advanced mathematics or molecular biology or computer information visualization -- areas where visual thinking and image manipulation are more highly valued than rapid recall of memorized names or math facts or large quantities of data. Sometimes, when the conceptual context and the technologies change in dramatic ways, the high talents that were once marginalized or considered of low value in the old era may suddenly move to center stage, providing the exact set of skills required in the new era.

Somehow, we need to be able to observe these changes with an open mind -- alert to seeing potential and opportunity rather than only failure and restriction. Sometimes, we might discover, the kids who are having the most trouble should not be held back. Rather, perhaps, sometimes, they should be pushed a long way forward -- if the right area can be identified by some new and innovative screening device or testing method. As we have seen, those who are most gifted in higher mathematics can have persistent problems with arithmetic; some great writers can never learn to spell.

Identifying the right topic for each specific student is important. It would help to hold their attention. But more important, perhaps it will allow them to use talents never recognized before. Perhaps it will allow them to learn in ways that are quite different from conventional schooling (and out of conventional educational sequence). Perhaps it will allow them to gain respect from others (and for themselves) for being able to do things that are challenging for other students--or even challenging for their teachers.

Of course, not all will be able to move ahead quickly -- but even the most limited student may have islands of strength that no one knew existed. We must make it our business to help them find these islands. Sometimes, almost anything will do to start. But in the end, it is really important for them to be able to say “I have a lot of trouble with this but I am the best in my class (or my school) at doing that.” Sometimes, a whole life hangs in the balance.

In many cases, of course, such an approach could be an administrative nightmare. How can the system cope with such extremes of diversity, with so many different measurement scales? Life is so much easier when there is one scale -- conveniently showing those who are the top in everything and those who are at the bottom of everything. With some new system, with so many scoring high on at least one or two subtests, how do you know which ones are really bright and which ones are really not so bright? However, it is clearly not beyond our capacity to make it work if we are convinced that it must be made to work -- if we are convinced of the real value of diversity in brains and abilities.

We now have many new and sophisticated tools at hand. And the need is great. It is high time to give up the illusion of uniformity and begin to take advantage -- for the sake of these individuals as well as the needs of society at large -- of vast differences in abilities in many diverse fields. When we all are having to compete with many millions of others globally (in an increasingly uncertain and changing economy; with fast transportation and cheap light-speed communication), it is suddenly essential that all of us quickly find whatever special talents we have, and develop these to a very high level -- whether or not it is part of the conventional academic curriculum.

True, it is not yet perfectly clear how this can be done. But it is clear enough that it will need to be done -- and in ways that are very different from traditional educational pathways -- and most likely there will be extensive use of the newest information visualization technologies. Sometimes just listening to the improbable life stories of highly successful dyslexics is enough to give us a few really new ideas about how to move forward in this direction.

End of excerpt. Comments are welcome.