Breaking the Stigma: The Misunderstood Dyslexic Brain

3D diagram of an object

Take a look at this impossible figure. Much like the work of the artist M.C. Escher, this shows an object that seems to be three-dimensional but cannot actually exist off the screen.

On the other hand, this is a possible object. It could exist in real life. In 2001, researchers performed a unique experiment with images like this. They asked people with and without dyslexia to identify which drawings were impossible. People with dyslexia proved significantly faster at recognizing impossible figures.

The researchers linked dyslexia with a particular global visual-spatial ability… to process a whole image versus focusing on it part by part. This study was just one of several over the past few decades that hinted at something many dyslexic people have only anecdotally known.

Though they had difficulty with reading and writing… they repeatedly found enhanced cognitive strengths in other areas. I have this kind of like model in my head. I can spin it around in my head and see ways of deconstructing and flipping it around with a lot of these.

It’s the entire puzzle rather than just the piece of it. It brings another layer of thinking and thinking outside the box and the blues. -Was it the blue… -Blue sky thinking? Blue sky thinking!

That doesn’t make me superhuman it’s just like how my brain structure is. Around 20% of the US population has been diagnosed with dyslexia and their difficulties all trace back… to here.

The dyslexic brain is structured differently in a way that can create specific challenges… but can also create specific advantages. In terms of human evolution, the brain isn’t naturally wired to read.

There’s not one specific region for reading like there is for sleeping or engaging our fear response. Reading is an invention. It is an invention that’s only 6000 years old.

While there is so much we still don’t understand about the human brain… over the past few decades, a clearer picture of how we read has emerged. When we’re young, we’re activating both hemispheres of our brains heavily… expending energy to learn how to read.

But for fluent readers, the brain streamlines more activation to structures in the left hemisphere… like this region known as the visual word form area… which helps us recognize letters and words.

And this region, the key to mapping letters to sounds is called phonological awareness. For example, breaking up the word cat into the sounds… uh, ah, and the.

And there’s Broca’s area, which among other things helps with comprehension to understand what words actually mean. Activated areas linked together with white matter.

There are neural pathways that turn into a complicated highway network that allows fluent readers to process a word within milliseconds. But in the dyslexic brain, these highways and activated areas can look a lot different.

Research using brain scans of dyslexic readers showed that there was less activation in these areas of the left hemisphere… suggesting there’s often a pathway disruption in these systems that help maps sounds to letters and decode words.

But people with dyslexia also consistently showed overactivation in the brain’s right hemisphere when reading. And that makes it more laborious. This could mean that while dyslexic people may have trouble recognizing words and sounds… they’re working even harder to compensate elsewhere.

The pathway disruptions can also come with challenges in grammar, retrieving math facts working memory, among other things too. Or often with dyslexia, neural pathways are not disrupted but just slowed down.

But I’m sort of mildly dyslexic. My challenge is more with numbers. Reading out loud. In class, you’re stricken with panic. And then all the words start floating. You just can’t read the words.

Everyone else would be on to do the exercise. And I’d be still trying to read the instructions. Exactly how people experience dyslexia varies greatly. It has no bearing on an individual’s intelligence… but today it’s commonly labeled a hereditary neurobiological learning disability.

Research has found explicit support and instruction in areas like phonology, syntax, and spelling can lead to success for dyslexic learners. But the reading brain is only part of the picture.

Years of research have started corroborating the idea that dyslexic people are prone to advantages including high-level reasoning, problem-solving spatial processing, episodic memory, and creativity.

Because I have the full picture in my head sometimes I can make associations between things that don’t appear to be relevant. We shake it up a bit if we kind of get people to think… you know, “Oh, I didn’t think of that.”

Being able to recall stories. You know, recall images. I’ll meet somebody and I will stop them on the street and be like “We know each other” and they will have no idea. I’m going to show you what a dyslexic high schooler did.

I was floored. Gobsmacked, because he was drawing from memory upside down. There are specific areas of strength in the right hemisphere… that seems very much to be at play… with individuals with dyslexia.

While most functions do use both hemispheres of our brains… the right hemisphere is typically associated with skills like spatial abilities and visual imagery. In a study similar to the one with impossible figures… dyslexic people were better able to identify letters in their periphery than other readers.

Another study compared the abilities of college students with and without dyslexia to memorize blurred images. Students with dyslexia significantly outperformed.

And in 2022, researchers at the University of Strathclyde and the University of Cambridge concluded that many people with dyslexia specialized in exploring the unknown.

And they suggested that because of how prevalent dyslexia is in the population, the form of cognition plays an essential role in enabling humans to adapt… especially through collaboration between different kinds of people.

These new ways of thinking about dyslexia are part of a wider movement to embrace neurodiversity… the idea that brains are simply wired differently and that these natural variations don’t mean they’re lacking.

Stigma, misconceptions, and a core lack of understanding of dyslexia are still rampant. But the more we can learn about differently, organized brains the better we can teach, collaborate with, and empower them.

And ultimately change the way we see dyslexia. This constellation of strengths… and weaknesses that go hand in hand. You can imagine how much better a child will feel when they know this is not a curse. This is not a disease. This is just a different organization in the brain.

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