The recent changes to the 88-year old SAT have instigated a national conversation around its efficacy. New York Times columnist, Jennifer Finney Boylan, penned a controversial piece titled “Save Us From the SAT” claiming “the SAT is a mind-numbing, stress-inducing ritual of torture.”
Although debates about the importance of standardized assessment remain unresolved, emergent research paints a convincing picture around the complexity of the human mind. A mind that cannot so easily be quantified, especially for individuals with less neuro-typical processing styles. According to Dr. Sally Shaywitz, of the Center for Dyslexia and Creativity at Yale, twenty-percent of the population is dyslexic. Dyslexia is a brain-based difference associated with specific challenges that affect spelling, reading and other school related skills. However, dyslexia also predisposes individuals to particular skills, talents and abilities, highlighting the ever elusive nature of intelligence.
The percentage of dyslexic professionals in fields such as engineering, art, and entrepreneurship is over twice the percentage of dyslexic individuals in the general population. This correlation between dyslexia and creativity, staggering in its scope, has been well noted. Mass-market media publications from the New York Times to The Wall Street Journal have featured a plethora of articles on successful dyslexics, ranging from artists such as Pablo Picasso and John Lennon to business tycoons such as Richard Branson, Charles Schwab and John T Chambers, the CEO of Cisco Systems. Julie Logan, a professor of entrepreneurship at the Cass business school, has conducted fascinating research, which indicated that 35% of highly successful entrepreneurs are dyslexics.
However, what is left unclear is why is there such a strong correlation between creativity and dyslexia. Although early childhood experiences with failure, and lack of opportunities in traditional frameworks, definitely contribute to the phenomenon, new research points to the anatomical differences of the dyslexic. The very wiring that causes such suffering in school, may be at the heart of the dyslexics’ creative strengths. Emergent research indicates that the dyslexic brain is one, which is wired for big picture creative thinking.
Dr. Manuel F. Casanova at the University of Louisville School of Medicine found that the dyslexic person’s brain cortices differ from non-dyslexics. In dyslexics conglomerates of neurons are connected to longer axons. The length of the axon is predictive of certain brain activities. Shorter axons correlate with identifying fine detail and the specificities of symbols and sounds. By contrast longer axons are correlated with the ability to see broad connections and concepts at play. To utilize a well-known metaphor, dyslexics have an advantage in seeing the “forest” but can struggle to see the “trees.”
Casanova asserts that the dyslexic processing style is one that allows the brain to pull information from all different parts of the brain and synthesize that information with more ease than the normative population. This less typical processing style both inhibits and allows for an alternate way of processing visual stimuli. In a study by Catya von Karolyi, Ellen Winner, Wendy Gray, and Gordon Sherman, the researchers evaluated people viewing “impossible figures”: objects that seem to be 3-D, but could not actually exist in 3-D space. Examples can be found in M. C. Escher’s paintings, such as his famous impossible staircase painting “Ascending and Descending.” If you were to scan this painting bit by bit, without integrating the whole, you’ll conclude that the figure is possible, but if you scan the picture holistically, you’ll be able to see that the individual parts conflict, making the image impossible. The researchers found that dyslexic individuals were significantly faster at recognizing impossible figures as impossible, and their faster speed didn’t sacrifice accuracy. This suggests one upside of poor reading skills: rapid and accurate ‘holistic inspection’.
Drs. Fernette and Brock Eide, physicians and authors of The Dyslexic Advantage, have categorized the big picture processing style into four subgroups, which all contribute to the dyslexic creative thinking strengths. The Eides refer to this cognitive abilities as MIND strengths: Material Reasoning (spatial reasoning), Interconnected reasoning, Narrative intelligence, and Dynamic reasoning. Dyslexics may have some or all of the MIND strengths, most exhibit strengths in one or two which are listed.
Material-Spatial (M) reasoning is the ability to mentally manipulate 3D shapes and orient ourselves in our environments. These individuals like to take things apart and put them together. Individuals with strong “M” skills often excel as architects, engineers, designers, physicists and mechanics and comprise almost 30 percent of architecture, art and design school students. MIT lab founder and dyslexic Nicholas Negronte states that dyslexia is common at MIT and is dubbed “The MIT disease”. Strong M- strengths do not come without drawbacks; the ability to flip 3D images around on their head often can increase children’s difficulty keeping their b/p/q’s and other similar mirror symbols separate. Additionally there is research that indicated that children with exceptional spatial ability “borrow” brain space from centers that are usually used for words or sounds.
Interconnected reasoning (I) is the ability to have a unique perspective on how things can relate to one another. Individuals with strong “I” strengths have an easy time recognizing similarities, relationships, big picture thinking, creativity and abstract reasoning and often look at things from different perspectives. Those with a dominant “I” skill can easily take skills from a particular discipline and apply them to a different discipline. This processing strength easily spots analogies and metaphors and notices patterns between relationships or physical objects. Individuals with “I” skills can use their skills in a whole host of ways, ranging from an innovative chef who artfully combines disparate ethnic cuisines, to the academic researcher who blazes his own interdisciplinary path. Serial-entrepreneurship is also more likely in dyslexics than in the general population. However, strong “I” strength comes with trade offs, including an inability to find succinct answers on school exams. This difficulty becomes increasingly apparent when asked to answer in a limited capacity such as matching or short answers as strong “I” students may become flustered as they see multiple answers to many questions.
Narrative reasoning (N) is the ability to construct complex series of mental scenes to recall the past, explain or anticipate the future. Individuals with strong narrative reasoning abilities are often excellent storytellers and recall information best through narrative and examples. Often “N” strength individuals have an easy time fabricating stories from scratch. Individuals with strong “N” strengths have an easy time connecting to others and excel in jobs that utilize skills such as sales, leadership, marketing, negotiation, litigation, or communication. The downside of a strong “N” processing style may become apparent when individuals are asked to think about overarching concepts or things. “N” individuals may be drawn to extreme cases encoded as vivid examples to the individual. To the “N” processor knowledge is not stored as dictionary-type information, rather it is example based.
Dynamic reasoning, the fourth dyslexic strength, is the ability to accurately predict past or future states from complex data. Individuals with this skill make predictions and hypothesize easily. Often individuals with this skill become successful entrepreneurs or scientists. This skill is very valuable when situations are new or changing rapidly such as finance or entrepreneurship. Those with strong “D” strengths maintain a fluid understanding of how changing conditions may have an effect.
The future life span of the SAT is unknown and it’s predictive power is hotly debated, but regardless of what happens with the SAT, it’s imperative that we shift our perception of intelligence from the “haves and the have nots” to a more inclusive paradigm. The standardized assessments as they are today, fail millions of students, as they struggle to accurately portray the complex nature of human ability. Looking forward, it’s vital that our concept of intelligence is one, which leaves room for paradox, and diversity as the complexity of the human mind continues to be deconstructed.
This post originally was posted in my column ‘Colorful Minds’ at The Creativity Post . Read the original here.