What if dyslexia is not a disorder at all but a unique cognitive style that helps humanity thrive?
Note: I have reposted this article in its entirety. It was written by Justin Garson and can be found in the magazine "Psychology Today", November/December 2022, pp 26-27.
Dyslexia: Beyond A Disorder
What if dyslexia is not a disorder at all but a unique cognitive style that helps humanity thrive? By Justin Garson, Ph.D.
EVER SINCE dyslexia was first identified in the 1880s, the condition, which interferes with the ability to read and write fluently, has been classified as a disorder. Indeed, British physician W. Pringle Morgan, an early pioneer of dyslexia research, described what he called "word blind ness" as a congenital defect.
Yet more recent evidence suggests that the long-standing "disorder" label may be obscuring a full picture of the condition-as a unique cognitive style that confers real benefits alongside its drawbacks. Far from being a disease to be cured, a new theory argues that dyslexia is an evolved cognitive specialization that played an essential role in the survival of early humans-and could help us thrive now if given the opportunity.
Where the Disease Model Falls Short
Historically, dyslexia has been thought of in terms of its deficits-slow word recognition and inaccurate spelling that make it challenging for someone to read and write at the same level as peers. But in a paper published this year in Frontiers in Psychology, Helen Taylor and Martin David Vestergaard point to two intriguing facts that undermine a disease model of dyslexia.
First, they note, dyslexia is universal in human populations and seems to have a strong genetic component, suggesting that the genes underlying dyslexia are ancient. Second, it remains widespread, with estimates of its prevalence ranging from 5 to 20 percent. Serious diseases of childhood tend to have a far lower incidence because natural selection usually contrives to remove them from the population.
It may be time to ask what the brains of people with dyslexia are built to do.
If a genetically-based condition of childhood occurs at such a high frequency, that's probably because it helps its species somehow. Indeed, a large body of research finds that dyslexia is associated with a number of cognitive strengths. Among them:
A big picture perspective: People with dyslexia tend to see the big picture easily, rather than getting lost in details. They're quicker to notice when a work of art, such as M. C. Escher's Waterfall, depicts an impossible image.
Creativity: People with dyslexia excel at divergent thinking, the ability to come up with multiple solutions to any given problem. This might explain why roughly one-third of American entrepreneurs are thought to have dyslexia.
An aptitude for art and engineering: People with dyslexia are significantly over-represented in fields like art, architecture, and engineering
An Evolutionary Heritage
Taken together, what do such strengths suggest about the nature of dyslexia? Taylor and Vestergaard argue that they fit into a theory of human evolution called complementary cognition. The core idea is that the brains of human beings developed an array of cognitive skills that complement one another so as to enhance group survival. Think about termites in a colony. They all behave quite differently-some are fighters, some breeders, others workers-but their differences enable the colony to thrive. Human minds, Taylor and Vestergaard contend, work similarly. Throughout history, humans faced innumerable challenges that required creative solutions. To that end, calling on an array of cognitive strategies could help. At the most basic level, there are two fundamental specializations: exploration and exploitation. We need to freely explore new environments in order to find resources like water. Once found, however, we need to be able to develop, or exploit, those resources efficiently. The same dynamic is at work at a cognitive level, where some people seek out new ideas and others build on those already in existence. Exploration and exploitation aren't mutually exclusive; it's more accurate to think of them as two ends of a spectrum, both at an individual and a species level. "Tipping the balance too far toward either exploration or exploitation puts [a species] at risk of not obtaining the resources-or knowledge-needed to survive," Taylor and Vestergaard maintain. Dyslexia, they argue, can be thought of as an expression of the "exploratory" end of the cognitive spectrum, along with related "disorders" like ADHD. Their theory is supported by research and clinical observations suggesting that people with dyslexia as a whole. outperform their neurotypical peers in both "external search" processes, like holistic visual processing, and "internal" ones, like divergent thinking and insight-based reasoning, even as they underperform on tasks of work- ing memory, procedural learning, or convergent thinking identifying a single "correct" answer). It's a cognitive trade off, resting on the assumption that as those with dyslexia explore the environ- ment and brainstorm novel ideas, others in their group who are more skilled in exploitative thinking will analyze, build on, and perfect what they find.
Time for a New Approach?
Some successful artists, engineers, and entrepreneurs feel they excel because of their dyslexia, not in spite of it. Yet others aren't so lucky, Western educational systems tend to prize reading and writing highly and often show little patience for cognitive exploration-a combination almost guaranteed to sap the confidence of dyslexic kids. The resulting disengagement can come with lasting consequences; adults with dyslexia are more likely than others to self-harm or end up imprisoned.Dyslexia's challenges are undeniable, and treatment can help individuals become more adept at reading and writing- still essential skills. But instead of focusing so much on what people with dyslexia can't do well, it may be time to ask what their brains are built to do, then guide them toward academic programs and careers geared toward their (many) strengths. If Taylor and Vestergaard are right, then thinking of dyslexia merely as a disorder isn't bad just for people with dyslexia. Denigrating a cognitive style that's key to our long term survival is bad for society as a whole. As we face inevitable future challenges, thinking about dyslexia-and indeed, many of the conditions that we label "disorders"- as being purposeful, not pathological, could be the key to unlocking our species' collective intelligence and finding the solutions necessary for us to thrive.
Justin Garson, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York, and the author of Madness A Philosophical Exploration.