In this article the terms dyslexia and developmental dyslexia are used interchangeably.
A new study from Cambridge University argues that developmental dyslexia (DD) has many positive aspects, and may have helped humans adapt and our species survive. The study, which was released in Frontiers in Psychology, explores the idea that dyslexia isn’t a neurobiological disorder, as it is conventionally viewed. Instead, researchers say that dyslexia may have been an evolutionary advantage; specifically an ‘exploratory bias’ which led our ancestors with this trait to explore the unknown.
Dyslexia is often presented as a barrier to learning and succeeding in conventional education. In the study, it is noted that even The World Federation of Neurology defines dyslexia as: “a disorder in children who, despite conventional classroom experience, fail to attain the language skills of reading, writing and spelling commensurate with their intellectual abilities”.
The study specifically calls for dyslexia to not be seen as a disorder. Study lead author Dr Helen Taylor says,
“The deficit-centred view of dyslexia isn’t telling the whole story… This research proposes a new framework to help us better understand the cognitive strengths of people with dyslexia.”
It is believed between 5% and 20% of the population (cross-culturally) is dyslexic. To be such a large percentage of the population means it is likely there is an evolutionary advantage of dyslexia.
According to the Cambridge researchers, dyslexia likely emerged in primitive humans, as an ability to explore the unknown. This means that whilst some of our hunter-gatherer ancestors would have been exploiting local resources, our dyslexic ancestors would have taken to exploring to find new resources.
In their research, Taylor and her team surmise that dyslexic and non-dyslexic people in a tribe would have had complementary skills. This is known as Complementary Cognition, which is the theory that our species adapts and evolves by having people with different abilities that complement each other.
“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.”
The study also points out that many people with dyslexia have enhanced creative abilities and innovative styles of thinking. People with dyslexia often excel in fields such as art and design, engineering, and entrepreneurship.
Dr Taylor says: “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”.