Seeing Dyslexia as a Unique Cognitive Strength, Rather Than a Disorder

Since its discovery in the 1890s, dyslexia has been described as a disorder of reading and writing. Its founder, W. Pringle Morton, called it a “congenital defect.” But what if the disorder label prevents us from seeing that it’s a unique cognitive style—one that might have evolved because of how it helped early humans?

The Disease Model of Dyslexia

A new paper by Helen Taylor, a complex systems scientist at the Universities of Cambridge and Strathclyde, and Martin David Vestergaard, a neuroscientist at Cambridge, argues that dyslexia is an evolutionary cognitive specialization with its own benefits and drawbacks. Taylor has been promoting this view in different settings for years.

Taylor and Vestergaard point to two intriguing facts about dyslexia that lead us away from the disease model.

First, dyslexia is widespread among people. Low estimates put it at 5 percent of the worldwide population. High estimates put it at 20 percent. Serious diseases of childhood tend to have a far lower incidence. That’s because natural selection tends to remove them from the population.

Second, dyslexia is universal in humans and seems to have a strong genetic component. That means the genes underlying dyslexia are probably pretty ancient.

As researchers Brock and Fernette Eide point out in their book, The Dyslexic Advantageif a worldwide “disorder” of childhood has such a high frequency, that’s because it probably helps us somehow.

So, what benefit might dyslexia have?

Cognitive Strengths of Dyslexia

Researchers have shown that dyslexia is associated with a number of cognitive strengths, some of which include the following:

  • A “big picture” perspective: People with dyslexia tend to see the big picture, rather than get lost in the details. For example, people with dyslexia are quick to notice when a work of art depicts an impossible figure, like MC Escher’s Waterfall.
  • Creativity: People with dyslexia excel at “divergent thinking.” This means the ability to come up with multiple solutions to any given problem. This might explain why roughly one-third of American entrepreneurs have dyslexia.
  • An aptitude for art and engineering: People with dyslexia are significantly overrepresented in fields like art, architecture, and engineering.

Source: Julia M Cameron/Pexels

This points to at least one serious problem with our Western educational system, which prizes reading and writing so highly and attempts to instill them at an early age.

Yet perhaps the most disturbing feature of our educational system is the way that it’s almost designed to shatter the confidence of dyslexic kids. We’ve known for a long time that low self-confidence is associated with relational trouble, negative moods, and substance abuse. Isn’t that enough reason to try a different approach?

An Evolutionary Heritage

The most innovative feature of Taylor’s research isn’t just her view that dyslexia might have cognitive benefits. Neurodiversity advocates have made similar claims about autism for some time.

Rather, it’s how she places this insight into an original vision of human evolution that she calls complementary cognition.

The core idea is that human beings were designed by evolution to have different cognitive skills, skills that complement one another to enhance group survival.

Think about termites in a colony. They look and behave quite differently (fighters, breeders, and workers), but their differences make the colony thrive.

In Taylor’s view, human minds work in a similar way. Human societies all face the same challenges—to acquire the information and resources they need to survive and thrive. To that end, it’s important for different people to use different cognitive strategies.

At the most basic level, there are two fundamental specializations, “exploration” and “exploitation.” We need to be able to freely explore new environments to find resources, like water and food. Once found, we need to be able to develop, or exploitthose resources efficacy.

We can see the same dynamic at a more abstract level, where some seek out brand-new ideas, and others develop, in-depth, ideas that are already in existence. It’s more accurate to think of exploration and exploitation as two ends of a spectrum, rather than an either/or.

In her view, dyslexia and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are expressions of this “exploratory” cognitive specialization. The problem is that education in the West tends to prize a more “exploitative” cognitive style while stifling the exploratory kind.

If Taylor is right, then continuing to think of dyslexia merely as a “disorder” isn’t just bad for people with dyslexia. It’s bad for society as a whole. We’re denigrating a cognitive style that’s key to long-term human survival.

More generally, it’s time to start thinking about many of the conditions that we label “mental disorders” as being purposeful, not pathological.

You can learn more about dyslexia and about projects spearheaded by people with dyslexia, on the resources section of Taylor’s Web site.

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