Study Argues Developmental Dyslexia Essential to Human Adaptive Success

Summary: Researchers argue those with dyslexia are specialized to explore the unknown. This explorative bias has an evolutionary basis that plays a crucial role in human survival.

Source: University of Cambridge

Cambridge researchers studying cognition, behavior and the brain have concluded that people with dyslexia are specialized to explore the unknown. This is likely to play a fundamental role in human adaptation to changing environments.

They think this ‘explorative bias’ has an evolutionary basis and plays a crucial role in our survival.

Based on these findings—which were apparent across multiple domains from visual processing to memory and at all levels of analysis—the researchers argue that we need to change our perspective of dyslexia as a neurological disorder.

The findings, reported today in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, have implications both at the individual and societal level, says lead author Dr. Helen Taylor, an affiliated Scholar at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at the University of Cambridge and a Research Associate at the University of Strathclyde.

“The deficit-centered view of dyslexia isn’t telling the whole story,” said Taylor. “This research proposes a new framework to help us better understand the cognitive strengths of people with dyslexia.”

She added: “We believe that the areas of difficulty experienced by people with dyslexia result from a cognitive trade-off between exploration of new information and exploitation of existing knowledge, with the upside being an explorative bias that could explain enhanced abilities observed in certain realms like discovery, invention and creativity.”

This is the first-time a cross-disciplinary approach using an evolutionary perspective has been applied in the analysis of studies on dyslexia.

“Schools, academic institutes and workplaces are not designed to make the most of explorative learning. But we urgently need to start nurturing this way of thinking to allow humanity to continue to adapt and solve key challenges,” said Taylor.

Dyslexia is found in up to 20% of the general population, irrespective of country, culture and world region. It is defined by the World Federation of Neurology as “a disorder in children who, despite conventional classroom experience, fail to attain the language skills of reading, writing and spelling commensurate with their intellectual abilities”.

The new findings are explained in the context of ‘Complementary Cognition’, a theory proposing that our ancestors evolved to specialize in different, but complementary, ways of thinking, which enhances human’s ability to adapt through collaboration.

These cognitive specializations are rooted in a well-known trade-off between exploration of new information and exploitation of existing knowledge. For example, if you eat all the food you have, you risk starvation when it’s all gone. But if you spend all your time exploring for food, you’re wasting energy you don’t need to waste. As in any complex system, we must ensure we balance our need to exploit known resources and explore new resources to survive.

“Striking the balance between exploring for new opportunities and exploiting the benefits of a particular choice is key to adaptation and survival and underpins many of the decisions we make in our daily lives,” said Taylor.

This shows a book
Based on these findings—which were apparent across multiple domains from visual processing to memory and at all levels of analysis—the researchers argue that we need to change our perspective of dyslexia as a neurological disorder. Image is in the public domain

Exploration encompasses activities that involve searching the unknown such as experimentation, discovery and innovation. In contrast, exploitation is concerned with using what’s already known including refinement, efficiency and selection.

“Considering this trade-off, an explorative specialization in people with dyslexia could help explain why they have difficulties with tasks related to exploitation, such as reading and writing.

“It could also explain why people with dyslexia appear to gravitate towards certain professions that require exploration-related abilities, such as arts, architecture, engineering, and entrepreneurship.”

The researchers found that their findings aligned with evidence from several other fields of research. For example, an explorative bias in such a large proportion of the population indicates that our species must have evolved during a period of high uncertainty and change.

This concurs with findings in the field of paleoarchaeology, revealing that human evolution was shaped over hundreds of thousands of years by dramatic climatic and environmental instability.

The researchers highlight that collaboration between individuals with different abilities could help explain the exceptional capacity of our species to adapt.

About this dyslexia and evolutionary neuroscience research news

Author: Press Office
Source: University of Cambridge
Contact: Press Office – University of Cambridge
Image: The image is in the public domain

Original Research: Open access.
Developmental Dyslexia: Developmental Disorder or Specialization in Explorative Cognitive Search” by Helen Taylor et al. Frontiers in Psychology


Developmental Dyslexia: Developmental Disorder or Specialization in Explorative Cognitive Search

We raise the new possibility that people diagnosed with developmental dyslexia (DD) are specialized in explorative cognitive search, and rather than having a neurocognitive disorder, play an essential role in human adaptation.

Most DD research has studied educational difficulties, with theories framing differences in neurocognitive processes as deficits. However, people with DD are also often proposed to have certain strengths – particularly in realms like discovery, invention, and creativity – that deficit-centered theories cannot explain.

We investigate whether these strengths reflect an underlying explorative specialization. We re-examine experimental studies in psychology and neuroscience using the framework of cognitive search, whereby many psychological processes involve a trade-off between exploration and exploitation.

We report evidence of an explorative bias in DD-associated cognitive strategies. High DD prevalence and an attendant explorative bias across multiple areas of cognition suggest the existence of explorative specialization.

An evolutionary perspective explains the combination of findings and challenges the view that individuals with DD have a disorder. In cooperating groups, individual specialization is favored when features that confer fitness benefits are functionally incompatible.

Evidence for search specialization suggests that, as with some other social organisms, humans mediate the exploration–exploitation trade-off by specializing in complementary strategies.

The existence of a system of collective cognitive search that emerges through collaboration would help to explain our species’ exceptional adaptiveness. It also aligns with evidence for substantial variability during our evolutionary history and the notion that humans are adapted not to a particular habitat but to variability itself.

Specialization creates interdependence and necessitates balancing complementary strategies. Reframing DD therefore underscores the urgency of changing certain cultural practices to ensure we do not inhibit adaptation.

Key improvements would remove cultural barriers to exploration and nurture explorative learning in education, academia, and the workplace, as well as emphasize collaboration over competition. Specialization in complementary search abilities represents a meta-adaptation; through collaboration, this likely enables human groups (as a species and as cultural systems) to successfully adapt.

Cultural change to support this system of collaborative search may therefore be essential in confronting the challenges humanity now faces.

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  1. Ellen – well put! And your comment is consistent with, and tends to back up, the hypothesis. My own experience of observing people with dyslexia supports the hypothesis – empirical, yes, but observational research is now well-accepted.
    Even if David disagrees.

  2. The point of this research is that dyslexic people can adapt to variations without needing to read or write well. That would be a huge advantage in pre education eras. Creativity will save you and your family much more than good reading or writing skills. It’s great to have both but I’ll go with a creative, adaptable person before one who expects to spell their way out of danger.

  3. This is literally not science. It’s an unprovable, non-falsifiable hypothesis. Why TF was this fantasy story even published?

    1. David – this is preliminary hypothesizing. It is not fantasy – can you prove it is? And it’s far too early to falsify it – Popper would agree! So you shld consider applying the science – based and accepted mode of challenging this – or any!- hypothesis before making an ex cathedra pronouncement.

  4. I’m a bit confused how not being able to read or write well, due to dyslexia, is an evolutionary advantage? The average person couldn’t read or write until the last couple hundred years, so how was dyslexia serving the general population in any unique way, throughout history?

    1. I must admit I’m fascinated by these findings and the proposed notion. I am moderately dyslexic and struggle to keep up with fellows who aren’t, however I surpass them in other areas like common sense, improvisation and hands on abilities. From what I’ve read of this hypothesis and your comment, perhaps we could think about hunter gathers. The hunters are dyslexic while the gathers aren’t. Gathers will use their knowledge of what’s immediately available and won’t explore past their comfort zone, while the hunters will go further and explore alternatives. If applied today those with dyslexia aren’t going to be the ones behind the computer but more likely to be out pursuing physical information and I dare say are more likely to be of use in an emergency where physical challenges are more present. While it’s all theoretical it is fun to think about and consider, while nothing will change in the real world those who can’t keep up in the class room will still be dismissed as lazy or unworthy in the realm of computers and literally skills which dominant today’s life.

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