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Dyslexic Talents and Nobel Prizes

By: Thomas G. West (2001)

Editor's Note: An alternative version of this article was published in different form in the February 2001 issue of ACM-SIGGRAPH Computer Graphics.

Recognition in the old tradition

"I didn't expect a Nobel Prize at all," he said, "in part because of the nature of the work. There was less science [and more engineering] in it than the things customarily honored by the prizes." This is the observation of Jack S. Kilby (Texas Instruments) co-inventor of the integrated circuit, on being notified of his award in October 2000.

The Nobel Prize for chemistry awarded at the same time to Alan J. Heeger (UC-Santa Barbara) and Hideki Shirakawa (University of Tsukuba) for their work on conductive polymers also reflected the recognition of broad effects rather than pure science. " We're very excited," said Daryle H. Busch of the American Chemical Society, "because this award is in the old tradition. That is, it was given for work that has a very substantial impact on society." (Suplee)

The shift back to an earlier tradition by the Nobel prize committee may reflect a growing recognition in the larger world of the deep value of applied work of broad impact as opposed to the highly theoretical work of relatively low impact which has commanded such high prestige in recent decades.

Thus these changes might be read as the small beginnings of a larger and more gradual swing back toward a greater respect for hand and eye and image building in the brain.

For some time the major contributions of strong visual thinkers have been eclipsed in many fields by theoretical approaches that did not lend themselves to pictures or images or imagined models and hands-on manipulation. For a long time, we have been told with confidence that visual approaches were old fashioned and somehow primitive. Most serious scientists and mathematicians, we were told, did not really need images. Pictures and diagrams were for non-professionals and lay persons. Mostly, pictures are for children.

But we now see that things are going back the other way. With new computer information visualization technologies, and a new sense of missed opportunities with the old narrow methods, researchers in many fields are becoming aware that in order to do really creative work, they may need to go back to visual approaches once again.

So, perhaps, we come back to the place where much of the most advanced and creative work is done by visual thinkers using visual methods and visual technologies. Once again, pictures are not only for children.

Reassessing visual roots at green college

Quiet indicators of these powerful changes are beginning, here and there, to gain broader attention. In one instance, on a bleak and rainy Saturday last November, a small but historic conference took place at Green College, Oxford University. With observations that will gladden the hearts of many dyslexics and strong visual thinkers, the conference presentations focused on high level achievements in the arts and the sciences within families over several generations. Titled "Genius in the Genes?" and sponsored by the Arts Dyslexia Trust, the conference included an associated exhibition of art and scientific work from eight families. All these families showed evidence of high visual and spatial talents along with troubles with words. Several members of each family were also dyslexic.

In a view that is contrary to most of the generally held beliefs in educational testing and recent educational reform, the speakers indicated that very high level and creative achievement in the sciences has often come from the neurological resources linked to success in the arts. The speakers indicated that some of those who have excelled most in their scientific achievements are from families with varied visual and spatial talents -- ones which often have troubles with words. As we are becoming increasingly aware, there does seem to be a kind of trade off -- very early brain development (largely controlled by genetic factors), often seems to gain unusual visual and spatial proficiencies at the cost of some lack of proficiency in some language system.

Consequently, there may be various family members who have special strengths in art, design, computer graphics, visual mathematics, mechanics or engineering -- yet may have unusual difficulties with reading, spelling, arithmetic, rote memorization or foreign languages. It is all part of a familiar pattern -- which is continually repeated with variations generation after generation. The pattern continues through families, parents to children, always different in details but often quite similar in the overall pattern of high visual strengths with notable language difficulties.

The pattern has often been observed, but little studied in any systematic way. There are still many uncertainties, but a pattern does seem to be emerging which merits further investigation. Many visually-oriented families are familiar with this sort of pattern. But this should not be surprising, The chosen occupations become a kind of filter. For example, the pattern is not uncommon among artists and designers, craftsmen and mechanics, surgeons and radiologists, architects and engineers. Even when the occupation may not be a giveaway, the hobbies often are.

Four nobel prizes

One of the speakers at the Green College conference was Patience Thomson, the former head of Fairley House School for dyslexics in London and now a publisher of "books for reluctant readers" (Barrington Stoke). She spoke of her family where there are many visual-spatial occupations in the arts and the sciences and no less that four Nobel prize winners. She explained that all of the prize-winning achievements have a high visual component. Thus, in a most remarkable example of the larger pattern, in this extended family the exceptional visual and spatial capabilities that have contributed to so much creativity and innovation, seem to be balanced by problems in other specific areas.

On her side of the family, the Nobel Laureates are her grandfather Sir William Bragg (1862-1942) and her father Sir Lawrence Bragg (1890-1971). They received a joint prize for x-ray crystallography. On her husband's (David Thomson) side, the Nobel Laureates are his grandfather Sir Joseph Thomson (1856-1940) for discovery of the electron and his father Sir George Thomson (1892-1925) for discovery of electron defraction.

She spoke of her famous father and the other outstanding scientists in her remarkable family, her gifted children, and the way the power of visual-spatial thinking has colored their lives and has contributed to many of the considerable achievements in the family. Along with the scientists among the Braggs and the Thomsons, there have been several artists, architects, TV producers and computer experts and one actor along with a number of other occupations where the role of visual-spatial proficiencies is not so obvious.

However, in five generations of these families, with many children and grandchildren, there have been 12 who are (or were) mildly dyslexic and 11 who are dyslexic. There are many great grandchildren who are "too young to tell." Along with the award medals and family photographs, the exhibition showed drawings and paintings by family members including a self portrait sketch by Sir Lawrence Bragg.

An indicator of the enduring importance of Lawrence Bragg's work is that when James Watson wrote The Double Helix -- about his discovery of the structure of DNA with Francis Crick -- he asked Bragg to write the Foreword to his book. The use of x-ray crystallography pioneered by the two Braggs was fundamental to understanding the structure of this molecule which carries all genetic information.

The art in medicine

Another speaker at the Oxford conference was Terence Ryan. Dr. Ryan described what turned out to be his own life story as man who was a leader in his field of medicine (dermatology) but had unusual difficulties with his early education and his medical education because of his dyslexia. For example, with exams, he would usually recognize accurately symptoms and conditions but would sometimes come up with the wrong Latin medical names.

However, in his practice and clinical observations, he found he could be a leader and innovator because he could recognize disease patterns that his medical colleagues could not easily see. He suspected that he had greater powers of visual observation than many of his associates. He also thought his dyslexia helped him to be more flexible and innovative in his thinking, coming up with theoretical approaches quite different from others in his field.

As an example of the creative inverted thinking that dyslexics sometimes exhibit, he described one of his own theories that is still controversial. Generally, it is taught that skin grows as its lowest layers and older cells allow themselves to rise to the top layers to slough off at the surface. He explained that from his point of view, cells would be unlikely to allow themselves to automatically rise to the top layers -- as they would thereby be moving further and further away from their food supply in the bottom layers. Consequently, he uses the novel alternative explanation that the cells which rise to the top are in fact inadvertently pushed out of the way by other cells which are in fact making their own way down toward the nutrient supplies in the bottom layers. In many ways the final results are the same, but the actual process is quite different. Consequently, his associates see him as one of the important "lateral" thinkers in the field.

In spite of his extensive educational difficulties, his medical career has been highly successful. Now retired, he was Clinical Professor of Dermatology at Oxford University and Vice Warden of one of the Oxford Colleges. He has been president of many of the national and international professional societies in his field as well as being active in establishing regional dermatology training centers in Africa and Central America. He is "not easily confined by definitions" which has helped him break new ground and produce about 500 publications.

As a hobby, Dr. Ryan does colorful flower paintings -- often exploiting visual ambiguities in which it may not be clear whether a garden stair goes up or down or whether a flower is inside or outside a frame.

Always at the leading edge

While it is clearly difficult to properly identify dyslexia at a distance in time and space, viewing visual strengths and verbal difficulties over many generations (through many changes in technologies and economies) can be remarkably instructive. Accordingly, we may be led to ask whether it is true, as some believe, that many of the early dyslexics and strong visual thinkers with language problems quit their schools and conventional towns as quickly as they could and headed for newest frontiers available to them -- the sailing ships and the wind or water powered mills, the railroads and telegraph lines, the gold mines and oil fields.

Did they mostly leave settled places like London, Boston and Philadelphia -- and seek their fortune (in disproportionate numbers) in places like Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Texas, Alaska and California? Did all the early Swedes who could not read (and so were not permitted to marry), really immigrate to America (as one Swedish researcher speculates)?

We may ask how strong and varied visual traits have contributed over time to both school difficulties and to remarkable innovations and inventions, within a shifting technological context. Why do these individuals seem always to be out in front of everyone else, especially when they can move ahead with the minimum of book learning and paper credentials -- while using their special visual-spatial abilities, creative imagination and hands-on skills -- often taking great risks?

Why do so many of today's technologists and entrepreneurs seem to fit this pattern? Why do there seem to be so many of these individuals in places like Silicon Valley? Whatever the time or place, some individuals seem to find ways to get away from the traditional books and the old settled ways by creating things that are entirely new. It seems to be a pattern that is familiar to many families. Perhaps it is worth looking at artistic and scientific families to see whether there is evidence of these enduring traits over generations -- visual thinkers doing the things they can do best in whatever technological context is made available by their time and place. The patterns may be more clear and enlightening than we might imagine.



Click the "References" link above to hide these references.

Caroe, G.M., 1978. William Henry Bragg -- 1892-1942 Man and Scientist. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Suplee, Curt, 2000. "Six Awarded Nobel Prizes in Chemistry, Physics -- 'Information Age' Contributions Honored.' " The Washington Post, October 11, 2000. p. A2.

Watson, James D., 1968. The Double Helix -- A Personal Account of the Discovery of DNA. With a Foreword by Sir Lawrence Bragg. New York: Atheneum.

West, Thomas G., 1997. In the Mind's Eye. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books.

West, Thomas, G. 1999. "The Abilities of Those with Reading Disabilities: Focusing on the Talents of People with Dyslexia." Chapter 11, Reading and Attention Disorders -- Neurobiological Correlates. Edited by Drake D. Duane, M.D. Baltimore, MD: York Press, Inc. Based on a conference sponsored by the National Dyslexia Research Foundation.

Thomas G. West invites readers to contact him with their own stories about families with visual-spatial strengths and verbal difficulties or other learning differences. Information about Barrington Stoke books can be found at www.barringtonstoke.co.uk.

Information about the Arts Dyslexia Trust can be obtained by contacting Susan Parkinson at: ArtsDysT@aol.com