Transcript for Maryanne Wolf on Dyslexia as a Gift

Jim Fleming: Maryanne Wolf knows as much as anybody on the planet about what the human brain is actually doing when it reads.  She runs The Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University and enjoyed significant popular success for her last book, "Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain."  But as Anne Strainchamps found out, Wolf is equally passionate about the dyslexic brain.

Maryanne Wolf: I like to say that the dyslexia brain is proof and daily evidence that the brain was never wired to read.  Now there are all these children in the world, all these individuals are walking around with brains that are so often, I can't say that for every single person, but so often these are brains that are wired to see spatial patterns, to see the big picture, to go outside of the box, to think holistically.  Often they're artists, they're architects and yeah, that same advantage or set of advantages which made them before literacy, our generals, out builders, a lot of our great figures, that made a disadvantage at the same time for some of the wiring that goes into left hemisphere language processes.

Now the real, if, if you wanna know my real task in life, it's to re-conceptualize or to help re-conceptualize dyslexia from being thought of as a deficit or something wrong with the brain, to realizing this is an extraordinary and beautiful brain that we have failed as an educational system to know how to teach easily when it comes to reading.  But that is the failure, not the child, but of us to understand.

And one of the joys for me in brain imaging is that we're able to look and see how many of our individuals with Dyslexia have such interesting right hemispheric processes, and when you look at how t hey read are using the right hemisphere inefficiently for a left hemisphere-like task.

Anne Strainchamps: You know what's really interesting is the way you describe it.  It sounds as though people who are dyslexic who are often regarded by teachers as handicapped actually may be among the most gifted of us; rather than having any kind of deficit they may be really gifted.

Wolf: Well, I wanna say two things: The first is that some of the greatest inventors and artists that we know have a history of dyslexia.  We look at Picasso, we look at Thomas Edison, we look at Gaudi, we look at Rodin, we look at modern entrepreneurs who are looking outside the book at a global level all the time in the world of finance...Charles Schwab, Paul Orfalea. 

You look at Silicon Valley, you see in a study by Julie Logan in London, they found that 35% of entrepreneurs, successful entrepreneurs have had a history of dyslexia.  Yeah, now what in the world?  That's a percentage that is not coincidental.  And then you look in your classrooms or you ask for the histories of some of these individuals and they will tell you they thought they were stupid.  They had teachers who did not know, they weren't trained, they didn't realize any of this and they felt the children were simply not working to potential or were lazy.  Nothing could've been less true.

But the child doesn't know that they aren't working to potential.  The child thinks they're working and failing.  And so one of my real tasks is to, and I say it's a task but it's also a joy, opportunity is to help teachers and parents realize every one of us has a potential, every single one of us.  But a dyslexic child's potential is often absolutely invisible because they have thought they were stupid and it is a complex embroidery of thinking they are different, and they're stupid and they can't learn.

Now the most resilient are great successes, but many people aren't.

Strainchamps: Could neuroscience point the way to discovering new pathways to help dyslexic children learn to read more easily?

Wolf: This is the question that has motivated the last 15 years of my life and I believe we're really closing in on it.  Our goal is to develop principles that all programs should use to help teach our children who have difficulties.  So, yes, the answer is an optimistic yes.

Fleming: Maryanne Wolf is the director of The Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University.  She spoke with Anne Strainchamps.

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