Is dyslexia a gift? Disorder actually helped some of history’s greatest minds achieve success


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.

Comments

  1. Complementary Cognition is brilliant theory and can be tested. I hope that there are currently some interesting experiments being set up to unequivocally prove it.

    As for saving the planet, we already have the knowhow to do it. People just aren’t prepared to make any sacrifices to their lifestyle choices.

    Also, good to see a dyslexic persons thinking skills in action with other types of thinkers. Well done Helen Taylor and all the others that have put this together your a credit to all of us.

    Charles Isted

  2. I have dyslexia, we’re still coming out of an Ice Age, CO2 averaged 900-3,300ppm for the 145 million years before the current Ice Age, there is no problem with 400ppm CO2 now. Problem solved.

  3. Having dyslexia I can tell you that I have a excelent / almost pgotographic memory, except for spelling and grammar. And I can memorize anything and recite it back almost leter perfect, I can also recall any facts at will. And can remember any conversation and recall it, scares the hell out of my boss.

    I am also known for comming up with out of the box or off the wall ideas that always work, again scares the hell out of my boss

    Given the ability to work independently and on my own schedule, I seem to be better at night thN in the day, I can accomplish almost anything

    In fact I am working in a field were I do not have a degree for and in fact have never had a class in yet, I have CPA’s, IT Managers. And Company officers comming asking me for ways to get thinks done.

  4. This is an absolute true story because its my true story. I was one of the 10k air traffic controllers who were fired for being stupid enough to strike in 1980. Dumb ass thing to do I knew at the time but couldnt convince others.

    Anyways I was also a full time student and decided to really hit it to finish up and get back in the employment game.
    So I’m burning the candle at both ends and starting to get some eye strain and went for an eye exam. Now I had an eye exam annually as part of a manditory flight physical.

    This doctor started doing some odd tests during the exam that I never had before. Then he ask what I did for a living and I explained I was a full time student in college albeit I was 34 at the time. He asked my grades and I said I was an honor student. He stood back like I was bull shitting him.

    Anyways he gave me a 3 X 5 card to read and I did so. Then he told me I have severe dylexsia and cant read but obviously I could read and he said somehow, someway I learned to over come it and read.

    I told him I did have issues in the past where I read a story or book and got a total different meaning then the other students as in, what the hell are they reading?

    On my way home from this it was like a huge weight had lifted off my shoulers. Finally I had the answers as to why things seemed weird and I came off as weird in grade school. I was labeled dumb and had a desk in the hallway. Yet I graduated from college with a 3.58 average and completed 3 degrees in 4 years and was an air traffic controller.

    The irony is I can learn things so fast, I somehow have the answer before the question is done and that can cause some problems in the communication sense. If there was a cure, I would never do it because it would change the uniqueness of who I am.

    I still remember in 5th grade having to learn the Gettysburg Address, I think it took me 5 minutes tops while others struggled for days to get it down.

  5. I am 70 years aged. Way back when I was in elementary school, they didn’t have dyslexia. I was considered lazy or stupid. Failed math all the way thru school because I couldn’t remember. Even though scoring very high on IQ tests of the time. Mastered and enjoy reading even though to this day I catch b’s & d’s shifting around. Working in the Post Office later in life was challenging as the numbers on letters sometimes shift around.

  6. Is dyslexia now a protected class? If so where does it fall on the weighted intersectional justice coefficient scale? My guess is between diabetes and a Peskotomuhkati tribe member.

  7. Tackle “climate change”? Please name a time in Earths history when the climate DID NOT change.

  8. I think I have always had it. Never bamed it on anything. I was a C student, but for some reason I can fix almost anything, move weights heavier than myself using angles, and cannot work in an office with a corporate team. I would like to harness this gift. My concepts are always 20 years a head of time. Simple products I come up with ultimately make it to the big corporate America. I think that Hemp is a mericle product that needs to be brought out of the regulations that man has created to stop the use of this product. It creatres more carbon offset than any plant because it is a weed, grows fast and is the stongest natural to earth fiber that mother nature has created. Finally, is there a test you can take to verify I gave this “gift”?

    [email protected]

    1. Yes there is! Just Google it for your area. My son had to take a test in 2nd grade to help build a special plan to support his dyslexia & dysgraphia.
      Where I live, schools don’t evaluate until 3rd grade. I noticed the issue in 1st grade.
      This concept is mind blowing. Why wouldn’t you entertain that a child learns uniquely until 3rd grade? Could you imagine sending a child directly into 3rd who has missed the basic learning blocks?
      Intervention has been life changing!

  9. As a dyslexic, I learned to read phonetically. I earned an MFA in Creative Writing. I also taught writing to college students. This is a badly informed article. Yes, I think in concepts and have to work down to details. My handwriting is terrible because the nerves in the hand misfire to the brain. I have difficulty memorizing. Listening skills are weakened because nerves or whatever cells in the ear do not go directly to the hearing part of the brain; they take a detour. I have trouble learning student names in my classes. I’m terrible with numbers but only recently realized that includes dates and time – expressed as numbers. No mention of any of this in the article.

    The most distinguishing dyslexic ability is top down thinking. Seem most people have to build up from facts to get to concepts.

    1. Climate Change control can only be attained with smaller population…

      That is why there are wars, diseases, and natural disasters..

  10. I have dyslexia, I can’t rope memorize very well. That’s is what is required in traditional schooling.I am a conceptual leaning. I have the ability to understand concepts and apply them almost at will. I truly believe that had I grew up in an environment that teaches that way I would have greatly benefited.

  11. Need to read “The Gift of Dyslexia by Ronald Davis. He has a training program that u can train someone with dyslexia to b able to read n 15 minutes. The best thing is it teaches the person to b able to switch from being able to read to back to dyslexic so they can b more creative. Was a teacher for 25 years and I have been through the training. It is the only program that works with children and adults. The US government uses this program for diplomat’s kids that are stationed overseas.

    1. Yes let’s be sure the smartest and most creative people with dyslexia solve climate change first. Not global clean water shortages, food shortages, genocide, No women rights in most Muslim countries, execution of LGBTQ in most Muslim countries, war, or growing mental health crises. Climate change is the biggest threat to this world and if you think that you obviously don’t have dyslexia.

  12. Seriously? Really? I posit these so-called “experts” are the ones with “developmental disorders” as anyone who interacts with dyslexic people knows they typically are among the brightest and most innovative thinkers. No news flash here. Just a lot of wasted research dollars.

    1. I have had dyslexia since first grade in 1946 . I have had trouble reading books and numbers because I lose the lines ,however ; I write poetry and have been since I was 12 with no problems.

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