June 28, 2022
Entrepreneurs Richard Branson and Steve Jobs—who went on to build billion-dollar companies—also have dealt with developmental dyslexia, a disorder in which children with normal intelligence and sensory abilities show learning deficits for reading.
Now, researchers at the University of Cambridge in Britain have discovered that people with the learning disorder actually have special skills that have enabled our species to survive, reports Study Finds.
The investigators say these individuals are better at solving problems and adapting to challenges, so much so that they could hold the key to tackling climate change. Those with the common learning disability specialize in exploring the unknown, likely to be vital in the coming decades as space exploration takes off.
“The deficit-centered view of dyslexia isn’t telling the whole story,” lead author Dr. Helen Taylor says in a university release. “This research proposes a new framework to help us better understand the cognitive strengths of people with dyslexia.”
Estimates suggest that dyslexia could affect up to one in five people in the United States.
“We believe that the areas of difficulty experienced by people with dyslexia result from a cognitive trade-off between exploration of new information and exploitation of existing knowledge, with the upside being an explorative bias that could explain enhanced abilities observed in certain realms like discovery, invention and creativity,” Dr. Taylor adds.
The study is the first to look at dyslexia from an evolutionary perspective—providing new insights on its prevalence among the gifted and talented.
“Schools, academic institutes, and workplaces are not designed to make the most of explorative learning. But we urgently need to start nurturing this way of thinking to allow humanity to continue to adapt and solve key challenges,” Taylor says.
study is based on a theory of evolution called “complementary cognition,” which suggests that humans evolved to specialize in different but supportive ways of processing information. Combining these abilities enables us to act as more than the sum of our parts —increasing creativity.
At the most fundamental level, it reflects the extent to which individuals are about to exploit the unknown. The phenomenon is rooted in a well-known trade-off between exploration of new information and exploitation of existing knowledge.
For example, if you eat all the food you have, you risk starvation when it’s all gone. However, if you spend all your time exploring for food, you are wasting energy you don’t need to waste. As in any complex system, humans must ensure that they balance the need to exploit known resources and explore new resources to survive.
“Striking the balance between exploring for new opportunities and exploiting the benefits of a particular choice is key to adaptation and survival and underpins many of the decisions we make in our daily lives,” the researcher continues.
Exploration encompasses activities that involve experimentation, discovery, and innovation. In contrast, exploitation focuses on using what’s already known including refinement, efficiency, and selection.
“Considering this trade-off, an explorative specialization in people with dyslexia could help explain why they have difficulties with tasks related to exploitation, such as reading and writing,” Dr. Taylor concludes.
“It could also explain why people with dyslexia appear to gravitate toward … professions that require exploration-related abilities, such as arts, architecture, engineering, and entrepreneurship.”
The researchers add that collaboration between individuals with different abilities could help explain the exceptional capacity of our species has to adapt.