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