CAMBRIDGE, United Kingdom — Dyslexia has affected some of history’s greatest figures, including Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso, and Prof. Stephen Hawking. Entrepreneurs like Richard Branson and Steve Jobs – who went on to build billion-dollar companies – have also dealt with developmental dyslexia. Now, scientists have discovered people with the learning disorder actually have special skills that have enabled our species to survive.
Researchers from the University of Cambridge say these individuals are better at solving problems and adapting to challenges, so much so that they could hold the key to tackling climate change. Those with the common learning disability specialize in exploring the unknown, likely to be vital in the coming decades as space exploration takes off.
The findings, published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, have implications both at the individual and societal levels.
“The deficit-centered view of dyslexia isn’t telling the whole story,” lead author Dr. Helen Taylor says in a university release. “This research proposes a new framework to help us better understand the cognitive strengths of people with dyslexia.”
More people may have dyslexia than you think
Estimates suggest that dyslexia could affect up to one in five people in the United States. It mainly causes problems with reading, writing, and spelling. Celebrities who have been afflicted range from Walt Disney and John Lennon to Jamie Oliver and Keira Knightley. George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and JFK left an indelible mark on the world as presidents of the United States, regardless of their spelling ability.
“We believe that the areas of difficulty experienced by people with dyslexia result from a cognitive trade-off between exploration of new information and exploitation of existing knowledge, with the upside being an explorative bias that could explain enhanced abilities observed in certain realms like discovery, invention and creativity,” Dr. Taylor adds.
The study is the first to look at dyslexia from an evolutionary perspective, providing new insights on its prevalence among the gifted and talented.
“Schools, academic institutes and workplaces are not designed to make the most of explorative learning. But we urgently need to start nurturing this way of thinking to allow humanity to continue to adapt and solve key challenges,” Taylor says.
The World Federation of Neurology defines dyslexia as “a disorder in children who, despite conventional classroom experience, fail to attain the language skills of reading, writing and spelling commensurate with their intellectual abilities.”
Balancing exploration and exploitation throughout evolution
The study is based on a theory of evolution called “complementary cognition,” which suggests humans evolved to specialize in different but supportive ways of processing information. Combining these abilities enables us to act as more than the sum of our parts – increasing creativity.
At the most fundamental level, it reflects the extent to which individuals are about to exploit the unknown. The phenomenon is rooted in a well-known trade-off between exploration of new information and exploitation of existing knowledge.
For example, if you eat all the food you have, you risk starvation when it’s all gone. However, if you spend all your time exploring for food, you are wasting energy you don’t need to waste. As in any complex system, humans must ensure that they balance the need to exploit known resources and explore new resources to survive.
“Striking the balance between exploring for new opportunities and exploiting the benefits of a particular choice is key to adaptation and survival and underpins many of the decisions we make in our daily lives,” the researcher continues.
Exploration encompasses activities that involve experimentation, discovery, and innovation. In contrast, exploitation focuses on using what’s already known including refinement, efficiency, and selection.
“Considering this trade-off, an explorative specialization in people with dyslexia could help explain why they have difficulties with tasks related to exploitation, such as reading and writing,” Dr. Taylor concludes.
“It could also explain why people with dyslexia appear to gravitate towards certain professions that require exploration-related abilities, such as arts, architecture, engineering, and entrepreneurship.”
Could dyslexic minds solve climate change?
Addressing climate change will need the collective power of complementary cognition, which is held back by cultural practices of modern society. Educators, academics, and policy makers consider people with dyslexia as having a developmental disorder. However, its prevalence throughout society suggests these individuals have an advantageous form of cognition passed down from our ancestors over thousands of generations.
The results align with evidence from several other fields. An explorative bias in such a large proportion of the population indicates our species evolved during a period of high uncertainty and change. This concurs with paleoarchaeology, revealing human evolution was shaped over hundreds of thousands of years by dramatic climatic and environmental instability.
The researchers add that collaboration between individuals with different abilities could help explain the exceptional capacity of our species has to adapt.
South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.