Dyslexia as an advantage?

While I attended the Mind Brain and Education Institute at Harvard last week, they shared a study with us that looked at a sampling of astrophysicists. The findings were that those scientists with dyslexia we far more effective in finding black holes than those without dyslexia. Just as interesting, the scientists without dyslexia would have gladly traded their ability to read more easily for this special ability. It is an interesting juxtaposition on who has the learning disability.


2 thoughts on “Dyslexia as an advantage?

  1. Who has the learning disability? What a great query, and one of many insights our Newman team gained at the Mind, Brain, & Education Institute in June. Like Dr. Locke, I too was intrigued by this entry point — astrophysics and black holes — into the discussion of learning differences. The ability to find black holes, which is of course highly valued in astrophysics, depends upon the perceiver’s peripheral vision. Peripheral vision is not necesarily always rewarded in our classrooms: most learners have learned to focus on a goal when asked to, and in so doing, are unable to keep track of what is in their periphery. They are rewarded academically because they have followed instructions, but if we follow the example of the astrophysicist or the dyslexic, we find that focus comes at a cost. The student who has learned to focus on a teacher’s goal may not see what is in the periphery. When Dr. Todd Rose (MBE) showed us Daniel Simons’ “selective attention test” at MBE, I learned exactly what I was missing and what I had ‘lost’ by becoming so attentive and focused on the goal at hand. {To take the test yourself, go to: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vJG698U2Mvo}. When I spoke to Dr. Rose afterwords, he hypothesized that people with attention deficit disorder also show better perception in the periphery. This was eye-opening for me. The implications for the classroom are manifold: When students have difficulty focusing, they may in fact be ‘enabled’ (rather than ‘disabled’) to perceive information in the periphery. That led me and others at MBE to ask: Is it the student or the classroom environment that is ‘disabled’? Knowing what we now know about the brain — the optic nerve’s relationship to the cortex (ie/ when you converge your eyes to fixate (focus) on a goal, peripheral processing is suppressed and the eye has a harder time attending to motion), and attention (defined as selection at the expense of something else) — educators should critically examine learning environments and pedagogy to determine if it is disabled or disabling to many of our learners. Goal-directed focus is still critical to the learning process, but we should always stop to ask our learners what is outside of the frames we impose upon the learning process. They may see many things — the gorilla, perhaps — that we did not see.

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