Dyslexic brains are organized in a way that maximizes strength in making big picture connections at the expense of weaknesses in processing fine details. They establish a different pattern of connections and circuitry, creating a different kind of problem-solving apparatus. The difference is global, not just in certain areas of the brain.
Differently wired brain
Dr. Manuel Casanova ... has analyzed the brains of thousands of individuals. He’s found that, in the general population, there is a bell-shaped distribution regarding the spacing of the functional processing units in the brain called minicolumns. These bundles of neurons function together as a unit. Some people have tightly packed minicolumns, for others they are spaced widely apart.
This is significant because when the minicolumns are tightly packed, there is very little space between them to send projecting axons to make connections to form larger scale circuits. Instead the connections link many nearby minicolumns which have very similar functions. As a result, you get circuits that process very rapidly and perform very specialized fine-detail functions, like discriminating slight differences between similar cues. But people with this kind of brain tend not to make connections between distant areas of the brain that tend to support higher functions like context, analogy, and significance.
Among individuals with the most tightly packed minicolumns, Dr. Casanova found many who were diagnosed with autism. In contrast, people with broadly spaced minicolumns, at the other end of the scale, tend to create more connections between functionally more diverse parts of the brain, which can help to support very life-like memories of past events, and more complex mental simulations and comparisons. It’s at this end of the spectrum that Casanova tended to find people with dyslexia.
- Putting together big pictures, or seeing larger context, or imagining how processes will play out over time. Interconnected reasoning is another kind of strength. These connections can be relationships of likeness — analogies for example — or causal relationships, or the ability to shift perspective and view an object or event from multiple perspectives, or the ability to see the “gist” or big-picture context surrounding an event or idea. Many dyslexics work in highly interdisciplinary fields or fields that require combining perspectives and techniques gained from different disciplines or backgrounds. Or they’re multiple specialists, or their work history is unusually varied. Often these individuals draw the comment that they can see connections that other people haven’t seen before.
- Some dyslexic individuals are especially good at spatial reasoning. Putting together three-dimensional spatial perspectives is easy for them. They may work in design, 3-D art, architecture, be engineers, builders, inventors, organic chemists or be exceptionally good at bagging your groceries.
- Most dyslexics tend to remember facts as experiences, examples or stories, rather than abstractions. We call this pattern narrative reasoning, which we consider the third strength. These kids have a very strong ability to learn from experience. It’s very common for their families to describe these kids as the family elephant. They’ll be the go-to person when someone wants to remember who gave what to sister for her birthday two years ago. They might be the family historian, but they can’t remember the times tables or which direction the three goes. \These individuals excel in fields where telling and understanding stories are important, like sales, counseling, trial law or even teaching. In addition, a large number of professional writers are dyslexic. For example, Philip Schultz, a Pulitzer Prize winning poet, recently wrote a wonderful piece for The New York Times about his new memoir, My Dyslexia. He shows the kind of profoundly clear and vivid memory of personal experiences even from very early in his life that we commonly see in dyslexic individuals. (maybe that’s why I like concrete examples)
- The fourth ability we outline is the ability to reason well in dynamic settings when the facts are incomplete or changing. People strong in this area often work in the business field, in financial markets or in scientific fields that reconstruct past events, like geologists or paleontologists. These people are comfortable working with processes that are constantly changing, and in making predictions.