In different books and podcast episodes and to different people, I have always expressed the need for us, as future or current psychologists, to move away from harmful language about disorders and things that are wrong with people, towards more positive language. Thankfully this is the direction of modern clinical psychology, and in this clinical psychology episode, I wanted to address this even further. Since there’s new research that supports the argument that dyslexia is a cognitive strength, and dyslexia is not a mental disorder. This is must read episode.
This clinical psychology podcast episode has been sponsored by Biological Psychology. Available from all major eBook retailers and you can order the paperback and hardback copies from Amazon, your local bookstore and local library, if you request it.
Why Dyslexia Is A Cognitive Strength?
Dyslexia was first discovered in the 1890s by Rudolf Berlin and it has always been called a disorder of writing and reading. Like with other conditions, it is this negative label that is preventing us from seeing that Dyslexia is instead a unique cognitive style and not a disorder. Especially if it did evolve because of it being helpful to early humans?
The Research For Questioning The Disease Model of Dyslexia
A new paper in Frontiers by Taylor and Vestergaard from June 2022 has argued that Dyslexia is an evolved cognitive specialisation with its own advantages as well as disadvantages, with Taylor promoting this viewpoint in different places for a number of years.
As a result, the two researchers point to two very interesting facts about Dyslexia that help us to leave the disease model behind.
Firstly, Dyslexia is universal in humans as well as it seems Dyslexia has a strong genetic component. This means that the genes underlying Dyslexia are probably pretty ancient.
Secondly, Dyslexia is widespread amongst the human population with the low estimates proposing that 5% of the human species has Dyslexia around the world, and the high estimates propose 20% of the species has the condition. As well as to support this point even more, serious diseases of childhood tend to have a far lower prevalence rate. This is because natural selection tends to remove these diseases from the population.
So why didn’t natural selection get rid of Dyslexia?
This question has been partially answered by the researchers Brock and Fernette Eide in their book The Dyslexic Advantage, as they highlight that a worldwide “disorder” in childhood that occurs at such a high rate could only be there possibly if it helped us to survive.
What Are The Benefits And Cognitive Strengths Of Dyslexia?
There are a lot of cognitive strengths within people with dyslexia. For example, dyslexic people excel at “divergent thinking” meaning they have the ability to come up with multiple solutions to any given problem. As well as this could help to explain why about one-third of American entrepreneurs have dyslexia.
In addition, people with dyslexia tend to see the bigger picture rather than getting lost in all the details. Such as dyslexic individuals are quicker to notice when a work of art shows an impossible figure, like in M.C Escher’s Waterfall.
Also, it’s very important to note that people with dyslexia have an aptitude for engineering as well as art and architecture.
As a result, this does point, in a way, to a massive problem within the western education system that prizes writing and reading so highly and attempts to instil it at a very early age.
However, perhaps one of the most disturbing features of our education systems is the way that it is set up to shatter the confidence of dyslexic children. Due to they are constantly told unless they can write and read perfectly then they have no good future. And this is before we acknowledge that for ages, researchers have known that a person’s low confidence is associated with relationship troubles, substance abuse and negative moods.
That’s why it is possibly vital that we seek a different approach?
The Evolutionary Heritage of Dyslexia:
Something else that Taylor proposes in human evolution is what she calls complementary cognition. The core idea of this type of cognition is that as humans, we were designed by evolution to have different cognitive skills and these skills complemented one another to enhance the overall group’s survival chances.
This is actually really interesting to think about because if we look at other species they have similar characteristics. For example, in termite colonies, you have different termites that behave very different, like the workers, the breeders and the fighters, but it is their differences that allow them to thrive.
Therefore, Taylor believes that human minds work in a similar way because with human societies facing all the same challenges, which is to acquire the information and resources that they need to survive and thrive. It is very important that different people use different cognitive strategies to help us achieve these aims.
Putting this into practice, at the most basic level of this theory, there are two fundamental specialisations, which are exploration and exploitation. Since humans need to be able to explore new environments freely so we can get resources, like water and food. But the problem is once these are found, we need to develop ways to use or exploit these resources efficiently.
Or putting this into a more abstract example, when we seek out new ideas to help solve problems, this is an example of exploration. Then exploitation is where you develop, in-depth, ideas that are already in existence. As well as it is probably more accurate to see exploration and exploitation as a spectrum and not as an either-or situation.
As a result, Taylor believes dyslexia as well as ADHD are expressions of the “exploratory” cognitive specialisation, with the problem being western education focuses too much on the exploitative cognitive style whilst stifling the exploratory kind.
And personally, this sort of argument can be seen in the literature of different fields because to grossly oversimplify this, there is concern about the amount of spoon-feeding information we are giving to our children and then just getting them to repeat the information in exams.
Without getting them to creatively use or apply the information beyond what they need to repeat in their exams.
Conclusion and Implications:
Personally, I think this is a very interesting idea and even though this is only done by one researcher and their research. I think it is worthy of more research attention because this is the sort of research we need in clinical psychology to truly understand mental health conditions in more depth, and more importantly to help support us move away from the damaging labels and towards a place or point more accepting of these so-called disorders.
Due to if Taylor is correct, this means continuing to see dyslexia as a “disorder” is not only a problem for those with dyslexia anymore. It is a massive problem for society as a whole because we are denigrating a cognitive style that has been key to our specie’s survival for the long term.
However, as I’ve said before, we need a lot of research into this before we can draw any firm conclusions. But the point of this podcast episode is about the importance of moving away from damaging labels and “disorders” that only make the suffering and psychological distress for our clients worse, and towards something more positive.
And something that is more positive for everyone.
I really hope you enjoyed today’s clinical psychology podcast episode.
If you want to learn more, please check out:
Biological Psychology. Available from all major eBook retailers and you can order the paperback and hardback copies from Amazon, your local bookstore and local library, if you request it.
Clinical Psychology and Biological Psychology Reference:
Taylor, H., & Vestergaard, M. D. (2022). Developmental dyslexia: disorder or specialization in exploration?. Frontiers in Psychology, 3374.
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