On Dyslexia

Dyslexia affects about 1 in 10 people, with some variance between orthographies (between alphabetic and non-alphabetic writing systems). More men than women are dyslexic

“What do William Wordsworth, Albert Einstein, Nikolai Tesla and YOU have in common?” said the poster on the wall of an educational psychologist’s office. As a ten-year-old my reading habit took a surprising left turn. I found printed text was often too small for me to differentiate easily between letters. It was the first time I’d noticed my brain’s propensity to make every letter quiver, saturated in purple, red and green silhouettes, like the three or four hovering squares of a camera flash. Just as they did back then, sentences break into three dimensions and numbers and letters throb in space, as if reviewing the footage of two cars with crash-test dummy drivers. Words gradually collide, crumple and overlap, before the clip starts over and the cars skip back to their starting positions, drivers bolt upright. The word ‘magnify’ becomes ‘magnum’ ‘magic’ ‘my’ ‘manifique’ ‘MiG’ ‘mollusc’ and zips back into place as ‘magnify’.

Here, on this computer screen, as I type, the words retain and ghost away from their white space, interchanging their shape with blue and red colour diminishing into senselessness. I have to retrace my steps through what I have just written, holding onto a mental rail, even though I may well have it memorised by the time it goes in, to ensure that I haven’t stepped and stepped, then stepped and missed. “It’s not that I’m so smart,” said Albert Einstein, “it’s just that I stay with problems longer.” I have been reassured that is all part of a neurobiological variation that we now call dyslexia.

“It’s not that I’m so smart,” said Albert Einstein, “it’s just that I stay with problems longer.”

Dyslexia affects about 1 in 10 people, with some variance between orthographies (between alphabetic and non-alphabetic writing systems). The exception to this rule is the US, where dyslexia is more prevalent, affecting around 1 in 5. More men than women are dyslexic, for reasons that researchers are still in the process of uncovering. From instruction manuals and to-do lists, to writing emails and giving presentations and from the side of cereal boxes, to entire novels, our view of the world is refracted by dyslexia. Language loses, therefore, a good deal of its co-ordinating and orientating powers.

Somewhere through the pencil-thick hole of the ear, beyond the eardrum, and past the snail shell whorl of the cochlea, and across the viscous threshold of cerebro-spinal fluid, and into the brain itself, is the left infero temporal cortex. This contains quick, ‘direct lexical access’ — home to the words with which we are most familiar, “said” “but” “the” “a” “an” “and”. In English poetry, these words generally remain unstressed, and act to blur their subject, think of Robert Frost’s After Apple-Picking and the lines, “I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight / I got from looking through a pane of glass / I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough.” The prepositions and vague verbs “got” and “looking” provide us only with the merest clue as to what eyes-closed breed of darkness Robert Frost might have seen, which, in the rest of the poem he equates with the place our mind travels prior to dreaming.

This is where the logical left hemisphere, responsible for mathematical problems and language co-ordinates with the creative right hemisphere whose concerns are with creativity, intuition and spatial activities. Here, hand me that cup, tell me a story about a flying chair, or the one about your friend who who’s recovering from surgery, or where do you see yourself in ten years exactly? What’s the sensation of gripping the cold chains of a playground swing before pushing your child? How does that sensation make you feel? What do you plan to eat this evening, and how comforting will it be?

FMRI scans have shown that electrochemical signals travelling across the brains of those with dyslexia become delayed, largely in a similar spot: the right frontal lobe. You might imagine the right frontal lobe as a sleepy fishing village somewhere along the coast that sells locally made fudge which is your sense of smell, or another place that is a memory; your sister’s house last winter when you crouched over burning paper, or the instructions telling you how to shake someone’s hand, or that sense of bittersweet pride you felt watching an old friend in a windy August day, finally saying I do, trying to brush a circling fly away from his face. The right frontal lobe is also a bustling metropolis of ‘Who am I as a person?’ and awareness of facial expressions, problem solving, speech and motor skills. A detective slides a picture across the table towards you, “Do you recognise the person in this photo?” and your right frontal lobe quickly tries to assemble an answer, to show that you have recognised yourself despite the fact that the question feels coded.

In the popular game, Pictionary we use abstract shapes against the clock to depict recognisable objects, places, people or common situations, without the reference point of verbal or physical clues. How often, after all, do we know someone by their face, but can’t place their name? It’s difficult and it’s horrible and all of those elements of shame, of worrying about our future, and feeling lost and humiliated, as well as being accused of being slow or stupid or even lazy, are the day-to-day experiences of people with dyslexia. Simultaneously, in an effort to compensate for its difficulties with language, other areas of the brain over-activate. There are variations in over-activation from person to person, but dyslexics can often be more adept at spatial reasoning, executive decision making, pattern and picture recognition, creativity, and lateral thinking, even peripheral vision. As transhumanists look for ways in which to biohack the brain, they would do well to avail themselves of the dyslexic condition, particularly the dyslexic skill of metacognition – the ability to be self-aware about how you think.

To be dyslexic is to join an impressive roster that, aside from Einstein, Wordsworth and Tesla, also includes Leonardo Da Vinci, Yeats, Gustave Flaubert, Agatha Christie and John Irving. Steven Spielberg has frequently talked about his struggles with dyslexia. Recently, Dr. Matthew H. Schneps at Harvard University co-authored a study in which they tested a group of individuals, asking them to spot signature traces of black holes within a spectrum of ‘noise’.

“In one study, we tested professional astrophysicists with and without dyslexia for their abilities to spot the simulated graphical signature in a spectrum characteristic of a black hole. The scientists with dyslexia —perhaps sensitive to the weeds among the flowers— were better at picking out the black holes from the noise, an advantage useful in their careers.”

His words in The Scientific American are a source of supreme comfort; that because of this complex network of synaptic pathways, and neural oddities, dyslexics appear more capable of spotting black holes. With this knowledge, we can identify singularities, the same kinds of event that were at the very heart of the Big Bang. It is a rather beautiful thought that one day, just as Einstein did in the past, that it will be dyslexic scientists who will be the first to be able to decipher from the at the infinitesimally large quantities of observational data, that one essential signature, and to show the rest of us from what place all of time, and later all of life and thought and language once emerged.