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Dyslexia isn’t a disorder, it’s part of our species’ cultural evolution, say researchers

Dyslexia should be considered a difference, not a disorder, researchers at the University of Cambridge say. This is evidenced by studies in cognition, behaviour and the brain that show that people with dyslexia are specialised to explore the unknown and think in terms of the bigger picture.

The strengths of the dyslexic brain could have evolved as humans adapted to a changing environment. To survive, we needed to learn skills and acquire habits, but we also needed to be creative and find novel solutions through exploration. In their new study, Dr Helen Taylor and Dr Martin Vestergaard say that because the brain has limited capacity, the only way to get better at adapting was by specialising in different strategies. Some people became more specialised in exploiting learned information, while others focused more on discovery and invention.

“In many other fields of research it is understood that adaptive systems – be they organisations, the brain or a beehive – need to achieve a balance between the extent to which they explore and exploit in order to adapt and survive,” said Taylor, who studies cognition and human evolution.

Studies have shown that people with dyslexia are less efficient at procedural learning than non-dyslexic people, said Taylor, and this has positives and negatives for both groups.

“Learning to read, write or play the piano are all examples of skills that are dependent upon procedural memory; once learned, the skills can be processed automatically and rapidly… However, once a skill becomes automatic, you’re essentially exploiting the same information again and again.

“Conversely, if an individual has difficulty acquiring automaticity, they retain conscious awareness of the process. The upside is that a skill or process can still be improved and exploration can continue.”

For over 100 years, dyslexia has been viewed through a negative lens. It has been called a developmental disorder, learning disability or learning difficulty. But instead of being a deficit, the distinction between dyslexic and non-dyslexic brains should be framed simply as a difference, said Taylor.

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“We all possess difficulties in areas that are other people’s strengths. It’s just unfortunate that in the case of people with dyslexia their difficulties are continually highlighted, in part due to the nature of education and in part due to the importance of reading/writing in our culture.”

By re-examining past studies in psychology and neuroscience, Taylor and Vestergaard found fundamental differences in how the dyslexic brain is wired.

Particularly, the way the brain organises its neurones and pathways differs depending on whether the brain is better at global ‘big picture’ thinking or local ‘detail-oriented’ thinking. Individuals with dyslexia have been shown to have more long-range connections, and fewer local connections.

Because these ways of thinking evolved are complementary, they work best in collaboration, said Taylor. Bringing explorative, global-thinking brains together with exploitative, local-thinking brains leads to solutions that couldn’t be imagined by one individual, or even a group of similar people.

In reframing dyslexia as a difference, rather than a disorder, society as a collective can benefit from more innovative solutions, said Taylor.

“It is important to emphasise people with dyslexia do still face a lot of difficulties, but the difficulties exist because of the environment and an emphasis on rote learning and reading and writing. [Instead, we could] nurture ‘explorative learning’ – learning through discovery, invention, creativity etc. which would work more to their strengths.”

The current focus on reading and writing creates a barrier to people with dyslexia, Taylor said.

“For example, you can still learn to be a brilliant surgeon even if you have difficulty with reading and writing. But if you cannot pass your exams, you may not get that opportunity. This is particularly unfortunate since talents associated with dyslexia may be particularly well suited to such a career – and indeed many careers.”

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