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.

This Time Will Be Different!

One in a series of posts on my struggles with maintaining a healthier weight, starting in early 2019 and working into the present day

#Weight: 247.6 lbs on Feb. 4, 2019

At the start of February, 2019, I was making some progress, down a few pounds from my recent 250-plus lbs status. My research on and insights into obesity in the U.S. and abroad helped me a little, giving greater context. But I also felt as if it amounted to societal/cultural psuedo-explanations for my own predicament.

For me, I knew from experience, it all boiled down to one major factor: my damned brain.

The often absurd story of my fat-happy head would start just about every morning. Maybe it’ll help if I describe that.

I would wake up and determine that today’s the day that I’m going to turn my big, fat life around. If I’m especially courageous, I step on the scale, which I actually keep in my closet. I get a little ding of pleasure, despair or frustration, depending on whether I’m up or down since the last time I checked.

Maybe I even jot dot my weight in a notepad near my bed stand or plug it into a file on a phone. You can’t manage what you can’t measure, right? That’s Management 101, and I’m sure I can manage this problem if I can just add a little structure to my day. I just need some logic, data and discipline! 

In the back of my mind, I hear a little voice asking, “How many times have we been here before?” and I respond that this time it’ll be different, damn it. THIS time I’m not just committed but experienced. I know how to manage the recalcitrant, moody employee that is myself.

My Virtuous Breakfasts

I hold fast to this idea as I make breakfast. I pull down my box of Rice Chex off the top of the fridge. Ah, my virtuous, virtuous Rice Chex. The top of the box proclaims:

WHOLE GRAIN is the 1st Ingredient 

 Yay, whole grain! You go, Grain! Getting on the grainy train. Going to make it grain, baby!

Why such enthusiasm? Because, I’m being so smart. You see, I’ve got science on my side now. That’s right, actually science. In your face, Fat! 

Of course, I know better than to expect cereal-based miracles. Sure, whole grain rice is supposed to be some kind of wonder food, according to “the literature.” But I tend to take any and all nutritional literature with a grain (so to speak) of salt, since the research is in a chronic, constant state of flux and contradiction.

What’s more, I’m aware that eating a processed food like cereal probably isn’t the same as eating something more authentic, such as a warm bowl of brown rice. Still, I feel pretty good about my Chex. First, whole grains are supposed to result in a reduced risk of weight gain (too late!). Second, some folks argue that rice is a better kind of starch in general. They talk about things like amylopectin (more common in wheat) versus amylose (more common in rice), but that’s too much detail for me to worry about.

Please, just make me feel better about being a virtuous eater!

So, I start off my morning by pouring some my unsweetened almond milk over my Chex and tossing in some fresh or defrosted frozen fruit. Jeez, I’m good. I’ll be thin in no time at all. I try not to do the math, but it’s almost automatic by now.

Let’s see. If I can lose just two pounds a week, then I’ll be at 200 lbs in just six months of so. Let’s see, when is my next family reunion? Boy, they’ll be impressed and envious of their oh-so-svelte brother. This time I’m really going to pull it off!

My Not-so-certain Lunch

By lunch time, I’m still feeling hopeful but am also somewhat tired, stressed and hungry. Maybe there’s a report I’m struggling to edit, or maybe there’s a not-so-happy client who wants something as soon as possible and preferably yesterday.

Anyway, I start casting about for lunch. My morning plan was to cut up an avocado and tomatoes, maybe with lettuce, olives or whatever’s around. Then I’ll pour some nice Italian dressing over it. Sounds pretty nice, right? Savory, even.

Well, sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn’t. On my good days, I eat that lightish lunch and get back to work. Maybe I add some tuna or canned sardines if I want to add a bit more protein and fat. Even then, though, I’m feeling pretty good about things.

Avocados are, after all, another wonder food, right? A person can hardly go wrong with one of those neat, green little symbols of nutritional virtue.  Avocados are, in fact, so good for you that when I just Google the word, the first site that pops up is 12 Proven Health Benefits of Avocado – Healthline. And the second is Everything You Need to Know About Avocados – WebMD. So, avocados, like whole grain rice, is a food for virtuous person, the person who views their body as a temple, the person is so lithe and enlightened that they’re practically levitating around a world bogged down by burgers and candy bars and greasy-fingered Netflix watchers hunkered with a bowl of chips.

Avocados are so stinking healthy that they’re stocked in the produce department with a sign flashing their many virtues:

  • 20 healthy vitamins and minerals!
  • More potassium than bananas!!
  • High in heart-healthy fatty acids!!!
  • Packed with fiber and, get this, antioxidants that can protect your eyes!!!!

 Yep, they’re a wonder food, alright. Too bad they’re so bloody bland!  All the literature talks about how rich and creamy they are, but they seldom mention that your average store-bought avocado is so boring and lackluster that the only time most normal folks eat them is when they’re made into a zesty guacamole that you eat with a nice, big bowl of chips and salsa. 

Yum!

But, no, shut up. That’s no good for you. Chips? Verboten, evil carbs. You’d might as well dip your lunch in crack cocaine.  Settle down. Bring on the boring alligator pear with a little oil and vinegar. Eat your salad and go back to work, you undisciplined bovine!

Such is my inner monologue. Maybe not every day, but too many days. It can be most dispiriting to live in my brain sometimes.

Eating a Snack on the Treadmill!

The workaday life is often compared to a treadmill. In my case, it’s literally true. After many years of fighting the battle of the bulge, I got a standing desk and the kind of treadmill I can walk on while I work. It’s pretty impressive. I can use it to walk anywhere from .1 to 2 mph while I’m working. 

It’s a nice way to burn a few extra calories….if you actually use it. Therein lies the rub. I mostly use it when I’ve something relatively tedious to do, something that doesn’t require my full concentration. When I have more challenging work, I tend to turn it off so I can think better. 

So, I just end up standing still on a motionless treadmill the whole day. Now, it could be worse. Some folks have claimed that “sitting is the new smoking,” suggesting that sitting at a desk all day is as bad for your body as smoking. 

Here’s how one article sums up the research: “There’s a direct relationship between time spent sitting and your risk of early mortality of any cause, researchers said, based on a study of nearly 8,000 adults. As your total sitting time increases, so does your risk of an early death.”

That’s pretty grim sounding, but is sitting really as bad as smoking? Not really. In fact, not even close, according to Healthline. Still, sitting for long periods of time is not good for you, so I suppose I’m getting something out of just standing at the desk all day.

But it’d be better if I used the treadmill for, well, treading (that is, assuming I don’t fall and break something, which would really be defeating the purpose).  This is another area where I do better in fits and starts, committing to actually walking for an hour, or two, or four. But, when the choice comes down to doing my work well or using the treadmill, I’ve got to prioritize the work.

You may be thinking, “But if the fat boy used it more often, he’d get better at working while treading and so his problem would be solved!”

Yes, that’s what I keep hoping for as well. But I’ve not been able to get there yet and, even if I do, walking in itself isn’t a panacea. Why? Because human beings were literally evolved for walking long distances while burning a minimum of calories. 

You wouldn’t know it by looking around the shuffleboard courts, but our ancestors were mostly lean, mean walking machines. Let’s say you weigh a nice trim (for me!) 180 pounds and you walk for a mile. Do you know how many calories you actually burn?  1000? 500? 300?

Not even close. You burn a whopping 96 calories, a little more than the calories you get in a single slice of bread, and way less than the calories you get eating a medium-sized donut (195 calories). 

So, you want to work off that donut you ate during the staff meeting? Then go for a two-mile hike and you might just get there! And if you happen to weigh only 120 or so pounds, then you’d better be ready for a three-mile hike, because you don’t burn calories as quickly as I do.

This mile-to-calorie efficiency was an awesome bit of evolutionary magic for our hunter-and-gatherer forebears. They could walk a long, long time looking for food and still maintain their big, calorie-burning brains. And human beings lived that way right up to till, at most, 10,000 years ago, the time of the first agricultural revolution. (I should mention that the ancestors of a lot of folks who might be reading this were hunter-gatherers much more recently, such as within the last hundred years or so.)

So, let’s do the math. Modern human beings have existed for at least 200,000 years (and far longer if we include human-like species leading to modern homo sapiens). If we only started farming 10 millennia ago, then that means we spent (as a species) 95% of our existence walking around looking for stuff to eat. If we count our very similar forebears, Homo Erectus, who were also nomadic tool users, then we’ve only had agriculture for a teeny, tiny fraction of our collective existence, somewhere on the order of .000005555556%. 

Image by José-manuel Benitos, 2007

So, the bottom line is evolution designed us for walking, not lounging on recliners and watching some sort of digital device. Evolution designed us for food scarcity, not food abundance. It designed to us to WANT to store as much fat on our bodies as possible, assuming we’d be burning most of it off.

More on that little conundrum later. In the next post, we’ll move on to dinner and then the after-work hours. Those are the truly tough ones.

Featured image Sisyphus (1548–49) by TitianPrado MuseumMadridSpain