According to researchers, people with developmental dyslexia have specific strengths related to exploring the unknown that have contributed to our species’ successful adaptation and survival.
Cambridge researchers studying cognition, behavior, and the brain came to the conclusion that people with dyslexia are wired to explore the unknown. This is likely to be crucial in human adaptation to changing environments.
They believe that this ‘exploratory bias’ has an evolutionary basis and is critical to our survival.
Based on these findings, which were evident across multiple domains ranging from visual processing to memory and at all levels of analysis, the researchers argue that we need to reconsider dyslexia as a neurological disorder.
According to lead author Dr. Helen Taylor, an Affiliated Scholar at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at the University of Cambridge and a Research Associate at the University of Strathclyde, the findings, published today in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, have implications both at the individual and societal levels.
“The deficit-centered view of dyslexia doesn’t tell the whole story,” Taylor said. “This study suggests a new framework for better understanding the cognitive strengths of people with dyslexia.”
“We believe that the areas of difficulty experienced by people with dyslexia result from a cognitive trade-off between exploring new information and exploitation of existing knowledge, with the upside being an exploratory bias that could explain enhanced abilities observed in certain realms such as discovery, invention, and creativity,” she added.
This is the first time a cross-disciplinary approach based on an evolutionary perspective has been used in the analysis of dyslexia studies.
“Schools, academic institutions, and workplaces are not designed to support exploratory learning. However, we must urgently begin cultivating this way of thinking in order for humanity to continue to adapt and solve major challenges “Taylor stated.
Dyslexia affects up to 20% of the general population, regardless of country, culture, or world region. The World Federation of Neurology defines it as “a disorder in children who, despite conventional classroom experience, fail to achieve reading, writing, and spelling skills commensurate with their intellectual abilities.”
The new findings are explained in the context of ‘Complementary Cognition,’ a theory that proposes that our ancestors evolved to specialize in different, but complementary, ways of thinking, which improves human adaptability through collaboration.
These cognitive specializations are based on a well-known trade-off between exploring new information and utilizing existing knowledge. For example, if you eat all of your food, you risk going hungry when it’s all gone. However, if you spend all of your time looking for food, you are wasting energy that you do not need to waste. To survive, we must balance our need to exploit known resources with our need to explore new resources, as in any complex system.
“Balancing the benefits of exploring new opportunities with the benefits of a particular choice is critical to adaptation and survival, and it underpins many of the decisions we make in our daily lives,” Taylor said.
Exploration includes activities such as experimentation, discovery, and innovation that involve searching for the unknown. Exploitation, on the other hand, is concerned with making use of what is already known, such as refinement, efficiency, and selection.
“Given this trade-off, an exploratory specialisation in people with dyslexia could help explain why they struggle with exploitation-related tasks like reading and writing.”
“It could also explain why people with dyslexia appear to gravitate toward professions that require exploratory skills, such as arts, architecture, engineering, and entrepreneurship.”
The researchers discovered that their findings were consistent with evidence from other fields of study. An exploratory bias in such a large proportion of the population, for example, indicates that our species evolved during a period of high uncertainty and change. This is consistent with findings in paleoarchaeology, which show that dramatic climatic and environmental instability shaped human evolution over hundreds of thousands of years.
The researchers emphasize that collaboration between people with different abilities could help explain our species’ exceptional ability to adapt.
The findings were published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology today.
The Hunter Centre for Entrepreneurship at the University of Strathclyde funded the study.
Reference: DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2022.889245