The modern world is stitched together by threads of written language. For those with the reading disorder dyslexia, the endless tangle of words can feel like an obstacle to survival.
Long framed purely as a learning disorder, the neurological condition that makes the decoding of text so difficult could also benefit individuals and their community in a world full of unknowns.
University of Cambridge psychologists Helen Taylor and Martin David Vestergaard reexamined the traditional view of developmental dyslexia as a disadvantage, proposing its neurological characteristics could carry advantages under different circumstances.
Specifically, they suggest brains that find it hard to quickly interpret written words could find it easier to explore their environments for useful clues that improve decision-making.
“The deficit-centered view of dyslexia isn’t telling the whole story,” says Taylor.
“This research proposes a new framework to help us better understand the cognitive strengths of people with dyslexia.”
Developmental dyslexia is characterized by difficulties turning the visual format of a written word into a meaningful set of sounds – what they call in the literacy business ‘phonemes’.
Thought to affect anywhere between 5 and 20 percent of the population, it generally sets reading ability back by a year or so, interfering with ongoing opportunities to learn as their peers progress.
The knock-on effect of this delay in a standardized education system can be profound, reducing confidence and self-esteem and potentially feeding into a slew of social problems.
Reading recruits a complex variety of visual, linguistic, and attentional networks in the brain. With as much as 80 percent of the condition’s traits dependent on inherited factors, it’s likely something in a person’s genes changes how these networks operate as a whole.
Since dyslexia affects such a wide diversity of the world’s population, and is so heavily influenced by our genes, it stands to reason evolution favored it in some way.
Against the backdrop of human evolution, the culture of reading and writing is shockingly recent. Our general reliance on effective literacy skills is even more recent, meaning the detrimental influences dyslexia has on individual cognition would have been negligible until recent generations.
Over the decades, psychologists have noted those who present signs of having dyslexia also tend to be better at global abstract and spatial reasoning. They also tend to be more inventive, and are better at predicting outcomes.
This could be a coping strategy in a world that values abilities to pull information from walls of text. Though Taylor and Vestergaard don’t think this is the case.
“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,” says Taylor.
Psychologically speaking, our minds are constrained by a constant tug-of-war called the exploration-exploitation trade-off. To make a decision, we need to be comfortable that the information we have is accurate and likely to result in a predictable outcome.
We could wait until we have better information, at the risk of losing that meal (or worse, becoming lunch ourselves). Act too quickly, however, and we might not learn why our decision is a mistake.
“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,” says Taylor.
In another lifetime, dyslexia wouldn’t manifest as an inability to transform scratches into sounds in our heads – it would enhance those rapid decision-making skills that could make a life-or-death difference for our community.
The framework reflects a wider trend in pathology that views neurodiversity as heavily contextualized by pressures within a changing environment.
The significance isn’t that any one disorder is a superpower in disguise, but that the biggest impediments are factors we have direct control over. Changing how we educate, for instance, or how we discuss an ability purely as a detriment, could be a far more effective ‘cure’ than any pill or therapy.
This research was published in Frontiers in Psychology.