Dyslexia is often called a “learning disability.” And it can indeed present learning challenges. Although its effects vary widely, children with dyslexia read so slowly that it would typically take them a half a year to read the same number of words other children might read in a day.
The fact that people who read so slowly were so adept at picking out the impossible figures was a big surprise to the researchers. After all, why would people who are slow in reading be fast at responding to visual representations of causal reasoning?
Though the psychologists may have been surprised, many of the people with dyslexia I speak with are not. In our laboratory at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics we have carried out studies funded by the National Science Foundation to investigate talents for science among those with dyslexia.
The dyslexic scientist Christopher Tonkin described to me his sense of this as a sensitivity to “things out of place.” He’s easily bothered by the weeds among the flowers in his garden, and he felt that this sensitivity for visual anomalies was something he built on in his career as a professional scientist. Such differences in sensitivity for causal perception may explain why people like Carole Greider and Baruj Benacerraf have been able to perform Nobel prize-winning science despite lifelong challenges with dyslexia.
Why are there advantages in dyslexia? Is it something about the brains of people with dyslexia that predisposes them to causal thinking? Or, is it a form of compensation, differences in the brain that occur because people with dyslexia read less? Unfortunately, the answer to these questions is unknown.
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