If You This Can Read...

February 14, 2012

Brit Trogen


Dyslexia is the most common learning disorder in the North America, affecting 15% of Americans, so it's no wonder we spend a large amount of research trying to understand it. But while dyslexia may bring to mind visions of inverted words and letters, some researchers are now focusing on another aspect of the disorder: the ways it actually improves perception.


Using a device called a tachistoscope, a mechanical shutter, researchers at MIT found that dyslexic individuals have superior peripheral vision compared to most readers. By flashing a row of letters across the subject's field of vision, they found that while non-dyslexic people have greater focus on the middle of the row, dyslexic individuals are better at identifying letters at the outer edges of vision. It also seems as though this tendency means that dyslexic people have an increased ability to absorb the "visual gist" of a scene, quickly taking in a whole picture without focusing to heavily on the details. 


There's a down-side to this, of course, because focusing on the periphery and overall picture means that focus on details is lost, making reading extremely difficult. But there are advantages, too. When viewing impossible objects like the necker cube, dyslexic people are faster in realizing their impossibility, something other viewers might take longer to do by focusing on single details.


In fields like science and design, dyslexic individuals may also bring unique skills. One study shows that they can more quickly identifiy the characteristics of black holes in radio-wave emissions, a skill that requires absorbing huge amounts of visual data.


Of course, there are countless difficulties associated with dyslexia. But as Oliver Sach's wrote in An Anthropologist on Mars: "[disorders] can play a paradoxical role by bringing out latent powers, developments, evolutions, forms of life that might never be seen or even be imaginable in their absence." Perhaps that is true in this case, as well.



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