Dog Is Doog: The [Possible] Upsides to the Downsides of My Dyslexia

One of the reasons I’m interested in cognitive science and different ways of perceiving the world is because of my dyslexia.

I was diagnosed as dyslexic well before most people had heard of the condition. I was lucky. My father was a doctor and my mother a psychology graduate back in the days when fewer women got college degrees.

I was a poor student in the first and second grades, having a hard time reading and writing. Of course, being an August baby probably didn’t help. Kids born in late summer tend to start school younger than their classmates, which means they are both cognitively and physically behind most other kids at a time when even a few months of extra development can mean a lot. Such kids tend to get worse grades and wind up with less confidence in their ability to learn.

Iced Tea and Phonics

But I also had signs of learning disabilities. For example, although “mirror writing” isn’t a definite sign of dyslexia at young ages, it can be one symptom. And it was certainly one of my specialties. I wouldn’t just get certain letters backwards such as d’s and b’s, I’d write whole words and phrases backwards including, of course, my name.

I’m sure there were many other signs as well, enough to convince my mother to seek specialist help since most teachers had never heard of the condition. In fact, my mother tried to educate my second-grade teacher on the topic, though Mrs. Decker was at first skeptical such a condition existed.

The long-and-short of it, though, was that I was taken to a special teacher in the Buffalo, NY. I knew her only as Mrs. Clark, though I want to say her name was Mary Clark (I hope I’m not conflating her name with that of the novelist Mary Higgins Clark).

I can’t quite form a clear mental picture of Mrs. Clark, though I remember her as kind and charming. I recall she was very professional-looking, her hair pinned up in a blondish, maybe grayish bun. But what I remember best is the iced tea she served, along with cookies. The glassware was crinkly and dark green and my hands often wet with condensation.

Once her tests confirmed I was a bona fide dyslexic, she set me to doing booklet after booklet of reading and writing exercises. Much of what she taught me, I believe, was phonics. I remember sounding out word after word for her. Keep in mind that was before the “Hooked on Phonics” craze began and “phonics versus whole language” battles were so savagely waged.

I imagine Mrs. Clark used other strategies as well. I seem to remember doing a lot of pencil work, so I assume she was conditioning my muscle memories as well as honing my perceptions. I have very fond memories of these lessons, which I’m sure is a testament to her patience, care and personality as well as her pedagogy. Mrs. Clark transformed my life.

Disability, Capability or Maybe a Bit of Both

After my sessions with Mrs. Clark, I went from a very poor student to quite a good one, at least within the not-so-rarified confines of public elementary school. At 8 years old, I started reading books of all kinds, though especially fiction, and have never really stopped since then.

I’m still a dyslexic, of course. Can I blame it for my lousy sense of direction? My absent mindedness? Or an initial mental sluggishness when picking of brand new skills?

Maybe. That’d certainly be convenient.

But maybe it’s more than just a handy excuse. Maybe it’s a backwards superpower. Or, at least, a cognitive distinction that that has upsides as well a downsides.

A recent study by Cambridge University researchers Dr. Helen Taylor and Dr. Martin Vestergaard indicates that dyslexic brains play a useful role in human evolution because they are, well, different. Indeed, some heavy hitters have reportedly played for the dyslexic team, including Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso, Sir Stephen Hawking, Sir Richard Branson and Steve Jobs.

(To be honest, I’m always a bit skeptical of such lists, especially when they apply to people living as far back as the Renaissance, but that’s the historical scuttlebutt).

Dr. Taylor, who studies cognition and evolution, is quoted in Science Focus as saying, “In many other fields of research it is understood that adaptive systems – be they organizations, the brain or a beehive – need to achieve a balance between the extent to which they explore and exploit in order to adapt and survive.”

So, basically, as I understand it, the theory is that dyslexics have a tough time “acquiring automaticity.” That is, when compared to non-dyslexics, they are not-so-hot at procedural learning. This can make it harder for some to learn, among other things, to learn how to read and write.

The good news about such learning difficulties is that dyslexics become more conscious (or, in my case, maybe just self-conscious) of whatever processes they’re trying to master. This turns out to be a pain in the butt in the short term but a potential advantage in the longer term. Taylor states, “The upside is that a skill or process can still be improved and exploration can continue.”

This helps dyslexics excel as explorers and creative types, even if they pay a societal price. Taylor notes, “It is important to emphasize people with dyslexia do still face a lot of difficulties, but the difficulties exist because of the environment and an emphasis on rote learning and reading and writing. [Instead, we could] nurture ‘explorative learning’ – learning through discovery, invention, creativity, etc. which would work more to their strengths.”

Nice to Finally Know

Over the years, I’ve learned to take any research findings with a grain of salt. One study suggests coffee is associated with stress and high cholesterol. The next one indicates its good for your liver and heart. The next one…well, we’ll see.

The bottom line is that Taylor and Vestergaard will not have the final say on the pluses and minuses of the dyslexic brain.  

Nonetheless, it’s nice for dyslexics to finally hear that their learning disabilities are also learning capabilities. And, it’s fun to envision us as bunches of unconventional but adaptive clusters of neurons buzzing usefully about in the vibrantly bizarre hive mind known as humanity.

Featured image from Totesquatre: Català: la dislexia. Wikimedia Commons.

We’re Engaged in Reality Wars, Not Culture Wars

In a previous post, I discussed the book The Case Against Reality, by cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman. This time, I want to loosely tie those ideas to the U.S. reality wars.

Echo Chambers and Halls of Mirrors

In today’s U.S., there are multiple political camps that, due to the structure of our system, invariably wind up channeled into just two political parties. This is maddening for those of us who want more choices, but for reasons known as Duverger’s Law, we’re stuck with just the two–at least for now.

Our two-party system leads to polarization, especially in an age when Americans find it easier than ever to lock themselves in media that do nothing but reinforce beliefs they tend to already hold. This especially applies to our cable news networks, with one recent study indicating that TV is a stronger driver of partisan news consumption than even our fractured social media.

That’s not to say social media doesn’t also play a role. Indeed, as one recent Atlantic article reported:

[R]esearchers who measure echo chambers by looking at social relationships and networks usually find evidence of “homophily”—that is, people tend to engage with others who are similar to themselves. One study of politically engaged Twitter users, for example, found that they “are disproportionately exposed to like-minded information and that information reaches like-minded users more quickly.”

Everywhere people look, they see versions of themselves reflected back and hear echoes of their own voices. It’s toxic narcissism writ large. As for other points of view, they are often distorted in grotesque ways that make people hate or distrust those who hold those points of view.

What makes this phenomenon even more destructive is that social media algorithms are designed to keep people engaged on their platforms so they’ll spend more time there. There are plenty of reports about how Facebook, YouTube and even TikTok are taking people down conspiracy-laden rabbit holes out of which they emerge as extremists.

The Reality Wars

Of course none of this is breaking news. In fact, it is commonly viewed as part of the so-called culture wars. What I believe, however, is that these trends extend beyond mere culture and influence our fundamental construction of reality.

Image of soap bubble: By KarlGaff – CC BY 4

If you believe Hoffman’s thesis that our perceptions are not based on some close-to-the-surface reality but, rather, on some sociobiological interface that bears little resemblance to whatever underlying reality is out there, then we literally generate our own realities to some degree.

(Yeah, I know that in a lot of ways this isn’t a new idea, even if now we have more evidence to support it. In fact, it’s straight out of Freshman Ponderings 101, bong tokes and dog-eared copies of Herman Hesse novels.)

Let’s assume for a minute that Hoffman is right. If so, then some human beings literally see reality in different ways, and this is bound to influence our politics.

Different Brains, Different Worlds

Certain factors shape our realities, not just our cultural views. This shows up in cognitive and psychological studies. For example, one study indicates that the brains of conservatives and liberals often function in slightly different ways. Scientific American reports:

The volume of gray matter, or neural cell bodies, making up the anterior cingulate cortex, an area that helps detect errors and resolve conflicts, tends to be larger in liberals. And the amygdala, which is important for regulating emotions and evaluating threats, is larger in conservatives.

No only do liberals and conservatives view the world in different ways, they even remember reality differently: “Among other things, partisan identity clouds memory. In a 2013 study, liberals were more likely to misremember George W. Bush remaining on vacation in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and conservatives were more likely to falsely recall seeing Barack Obama shaking hands with the president of Iran.”

There are, in fact, various studies indicating that conservatives and liberals see the world differently. And, it’s not just the world they see differently. It’s their own minds and motivations. For example, whereas liberals and conservatives think they are applying judgment equally to all groups of people, they each tend to judge members of their own ideology more favorably than others. 

“It seems that most people think that they are applying their moral principles in an even-handed way,” authors Dr. Jan Voelkel and Dr. Mark Brandt told PsyPost. “However, our findings suggest that we humans struggle to apply our moral principles equally to our outgroups and ingroups.”

Naively Unrealistic about Reality

There’s a name for the human tendency to believe that we see the world around us objectively (and to see the people who disagree with us as irrational, biased or immoral). It’s called “naïve  realism.”

Naïve realism is theoretically responsible for a bunch of systematic cognitive errors, such as:

We’ve seen naive realism play out in spades in the U.S. over the last several years. Take the pandemic. The U.S. has suffered more Covid-19 deaths per capita than any other nations in the world except for Peru and Brazil, yet a 2020 poll from Pew Research Center found that 76% of Republicans believed the pandemic was handled successfully in the U.S. while the same was true for only 29% of Democrats.

Sometimes differences come down to which aspects of our reality we choose to pay attention to. For example, about 4 in 10 American’s have closely followed news about the Jan. 6th select committee’s hearings, but the the percentage who are following at least somewhat closely vary widely from 55% of Democrats to 40% of independents and just 28% of Republicans.

Divisions have gotten so bad that they’ve crept deep into our personal lives. For example, The Institute for Family Studies reports:

Marriages across political lines appear to be falling. In 2016, when Eitan Hersh and Yair Ghitza counted married couples among registered voters, they found that 30% of couples were politically mixed, meaning they did not share the same party identification. Most of these marriages were between partisans and Independents, and 9% of all marriages were between Democrats and Republicans. Today, only 21% of marriages are politically mixed, and nearly 4% (3.6%) are between Democrats and Republicans, according to my analysis of the new American Family Survey.

On Reality-Bending Demagogues

We live in an era of demagogues. Lexico.com defines a demagogue as “a political leader who seeks support by appealing to the desires and prejudices of ordinary people rather than by using rational argument.”

Politicians are probably demagogues if they:

  • try to make you fear or hate some specific group of people who have traditionally been ostracized from society
  • attempt to fan flames of outrage by making emotional appeals based on unsupported or widely exaggerated evidence
  • bully and attack others who dare to challenge their arguments, power or ego
  • make arguments that they themselves contradict because the arguments are based on emotions rather than logic
  • promise to solve complex problems with overly simple and often unworkable solutions
  • try to make “people like you” feel as if you are a victim of unfair treatment by some demonized group around which unproven (and usually unprovable) conspiracies are woven
  • repeat large lies again and again, following the dictate of Joseph Goebbels: “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”

Demagogues are typically reality warpers because their claims and emotional appeals can’t be well supported by the honestly presented facts. But this doesn’t mean the warping isn’t real. They can literally change the way people view their realities.

Some Results of Warped Realities

How does such warping work on a practical level?

Let’s use the issue of immigration as an example. On recent NPR/Ipsos poll found that fewer than half of participants correctly answered a range of true or false statements regarding immigration.

For example, 54% of Americans think it’s at least somewhat true that we’re experiencing an “invasion” at the southern border, with 76% of Republicans and 40% of Democrats believing it. Part of the problem here is that word “invasion,” which typically refers to armed forces but in this case refers to regular and generally unarmed people crossing the U.S. southern border. The emotion-laden word literally changes the way people interpret their realities and is largely a media-influenced concept. Republicans who cite Fox News or other conservative news sources as their main news source are more likely to buy into the invasion narrative.

But the reality warping extends beyond emotions attached to immigration. For example, half of polled Americans “believe it is at least somewhat true that migrants bringing fentanyl and other illegal drugs over the southern border are responsible for the increase in drug overdoses and deaths in the U.S.” This claim is not supported by the evidence. Almost all fentanyl is smuggled into the U.S. hidden in vehicles coming through official ports of entry.

So, why do so many people believe otherwise? It’s largely because demagogues and media figures mislead people. For example, Florida’s governor states, “You have people coming across illegally from countries all over the world. And so what has that gotten us? We now, in this country, have the leading cause of death for people 18 to 45 as fentanyl overdose.”

He infers that the illegal smuggling of fentanyl is directly linked to illegal immigration even those these two things are almost entirely unrelated. This is how realities are twisted and forged by politicians and media sources.

In another example, over half of Republicans believe that, compared to native-born U.S. residents, immigrants are more likely to use public benefits and to commit crimes, even though the evidence indicates that neither of these is true.

Working with the Threads of Shared Reality

So, how can we reweave some of these threads into a more cohesive U.S. reality? I wish I knew. It may be the single most important question facing U.S. democracy today.

One way to weave threads of common realties may be by starting with areas of political consensus and having people work together on those areas. For example, there are large bipartisan U.S. majorities that favor increasing the number of work visas to legal immigrants. Americans could work across party lines on the issue in an attempt to have lawmakers pass meaningful legislation in this area.

There are, in fact, various areas of political reform that both voting constituencies tend to favor by large margins. According to the Program for Public Consultation at the University of Maryland, these include:

  • a Constitutional amendment to allow governments greater freedom to regulate campaign financing
  • requirements for increasing disclosure of campaign financing
  • an extension of the period of time that former government officials must wait before working as a lobbyist
  • a movement to make it easier for independent and third-party candidates to compete in U.S. elections

Not only could such public policy work help form more examples of shared realities, they would bring these different groups into closer contact with one another, allowing people to form closer emotional connections with those who think in other ways.

Final Thoughts

Although culture plays a role, the “culture wars” are, in a deep sense, reality wars in that people literally disagree about what’s real. If we can internalize this as the problem, then we can finally grok just how deep our national issues go.

Ultimately, though, what we call these conflicts is less important that whether we can come up solutions to address them. Democracies will always be characterized by differences of opinions. Such differences are good. In the war of ideas, you want the best ones to flourish. That’s why democracies tend to produce happier and healthier societies.

But we also need ways of keeping those differences from mutating into outrage, hatred and violence. Because a democracy that results in open conflict is a deeply unhealthy democracy, one likely to metastasize into something truly dreaded and deadly.

Featured image from Ústí nad Labem, the Czech Republic. Větruše hill, a mirror labyrinth.