Dyslexics Could Be Our Most Talented Data Visualizers

Thomas G. West has known for over 20 years what has since been gradually recognized by other cognitive scientists: dyslexia has an upside. Not only this, but the special abilities of many dyslexics are desperately needed in the world today. What has been traditionally deemed a disability is a different wiring of the brain—one that once worked exceptionally well and might be coming into its own again. West explores the problems and opportunities of dyslexia and the important role of visual thinking in an updated version of his wonderful book In the Mind’s Eye: Creative Visual Thinkers, Gifted Dyslexics, and the Rise of Visual Technologies, Second Edition (2009).

Dyslexia literally means trouble with words. The brains of dyslexics, while not well wired for verbal thinking, are wired for abundant abilities in visual thinking. Three modes of thinking are important to human endeavor in the world today: literacy (thinking in words), numeracy (thinking in numbers), and graphicacy (thinking in images). Since the middle ages, societies have primarily valued literacy and numeracy, giving those who excel in these aptitudes an elite status. Graphicacy, which I’m using to describe visual-spatial thinking, served humans well in preliterate societies and continued to serve them well since for non-literate endeavors, but it was downgraded in value in medieval times as the way of the masses. Literacy and numeracy became the twin pillars of our educational systems, with little or no appreciation for graphicacy. Those who function predominantly as visual thinkers have been pushed to the margins as disabled, base, and dumb. Much of the work that is enabled by literacy and numeracy, however, is now increasingly being done by machines. Tasks that follow a strict set of procedures or involve computation can be done faster and more accurately by computers. West describes this situation in the following excerpts from his book:

For some four hundred or five hundred years we have had our schools teaching basically the skills of the medieval clerk—reading, writing, counting, and memorizing texts. Now it seems that we might be on the verge of a new era, when we will wish to, and be required to, emphasize a very different set of skills—those of a Renaissance man such as Leonardo da Vinci. With such a change, traits that are considered desirable today might very well be obsolete and unwanted tomorrow. In place of the qualities desired in a well-trained clerk, we might, instead, find preferable a habit of innovation in many diverse fields, the perspective of the global generalist rather than the narrowly focused specialist, and an emphasis on visual content and analysis over parallel verbal modes.

If we continue to turn out people who primarily have the skills (and outlook) of the clerk, however well trained, we may increasingly be turning out people who will, like the unskilled laborer of the last century, have less and less to sell in the marketplace. Sometime in the not too distant future machines will be the best clerks. It will be left to humans to maximize what is most valued among human capabilities and what machines cannot do—and increasingly these are likely to involve the insightful and integrative capacities associated with visual modes of thought. (West, pp. 306 and 307)

To the extent that…[expert] systems proliferate and come to be depended upon, to the extent they show themselves to be useful and reliable, these systems might gradually begin to displace and devalue an increasingly significant proportion of the functions and knowledge painfully gained through years of training by many professionals—physicians, engineers, attorneys, administrators, scientists, and others. Indeed, an ironic aspect of these developments is that these systems may be most useful, and then most threatening, mainly in those disciplines that are the most highly systematized. In such cases, evolution might appear, once again, to move backward…

Consequently, we might expect that the more formalized, organized, and consistent the knowledge of a particular discipline, the more easily it could be gradually taken over by machines. Whereas, on the other hand, the less formalized and the more intuitive the knowledge of a particular discipline, the less easily it could be taken over by machines. (West, pp. 109 and 110)

In time…it may be seen that the most useful forms of education are those that focus on the larger perspectives, the larger patterns, within fields and across fields, interspersed by investigations of depth here and there. (West, p. 113)

What computers can’t do well—see the whole, rather than a collection of parts—is a human skill, especially of visual thinkers. What is visual thinking exactly, and how does it relate to pattern recognition?

We may consider “visual thinking” as that form of thought in which images are generated or recalled in the mind and are manipulated, overlaid, translated, associated with other similar forms (as with a metaphor), rotated, increased or reduced in size, distorted, or otherwise transformed gradually from one familiar image into another…”Pattern recognition” has been a major concern in artificial intelligence research and has proved to be quite complex. It has turned out to be one of those things which is very difficult for computers but easy for most human beings…For our purposes, we will consider pattern recognition to be the ability to discern similarities of form among two or more things, whether these be textile designs, facial resemblance of family members, graphs of repeating biological growth cycles, or similarities between historical epochs…From pattern recognition it is but a short step to “problem solving,” since, at least for its more common aspects, problem solving generally involves the recognition of a developing or repeating pattern and the carrying out of actions to obtain desired results based on one’s understanding of this pattern. (West, p. 36)

We who work with information to find and understand the stories that dwell within, especially visual analysts, keenly recognize the importance of these skills. The ability to see how things connect to form complex systems, how they influence one another in a subtle dance of interaction, is imperative if we hope to solve the big problems that plague us today. These big problems, in many respects, have emerged because of our focus on parts while ignoring the whole—the fallout of specialization.

Everyone agrees that we have a problem. Our technological culture is drowning in its own success. Masses of data and information are accumulating everywhere. Up to now, the basic strategy for dealing with these growing masses of information has been long, mind-numbing education and reckless, blinkered specialization. That this strategy has been effective in a great many respects, so far, there can be little debate. The problems we are discussing are a tribute to its ample and abundant success, so far. However, after long success, it is becoming increasingly clear that this strategy may be entering a phase of diminishing return. It has long been recognized that this strategy has always had built-in problems. The more one knows in one’s own, increasingly narrow area, the more one is ignorant in other areas, the more difficult is effective communication between unrelated areas, and the more unlikely it is that the larger whole will be properly perceived or understood. Like the student who reads too much small print, the specialist’s habitual near focus often promotes the myopic perspective that precludes the comprehension of larger, more important patterns. The distant view of the whole is blurred and unclear. If you focus only on a small group of stars at the edge of the Milky Way, you will not perceive the larger structure of the whole galaxy of which the group is one tiny part.

The specialist strategy breeds its own limits. Pieces of the puzzle in separate areas remain far apart, or come together only after decades of specialist resistance, or success in one area leads to great problems in another. Material abundance produces waste-disposal problems; cars and aircraft produce wonderful mobility for many people, but also deplete resources, produce accidental fatalities, and increase pollution; success in vaccination, hygiene, and health care lead to all the problems of great concentrations of human population.

As the specialist strategy continues to be pursued, a sense of the whole is increasingly lost. Many know their areas; few see the whole. Many are expert; few are wise. But the visual thinkers, late bloomers, and creative dyslexics we have been dealing with have often been outsiders or reluctant participants in this specialist culture—especially those who are energetic, and globally minded, who seem always to be interested in everything, unable to settle down to a “serious” (that is, highly specialized) area of study. (West, p. 298)

In collaboration with visual thinking skills, visualization technologies have an important role to play in solving the big problems of today.

With the further development of smaller, cheaper, but more powerful computers having sophisticated visual-projection capabilities, we might expect a new trend to be emerging in which visual proficiencies could play an increasingly important role in areas that have been almost exclusively dominated in the past by those most proficient in verbal-logical-mathematical modes of thought. Increasingly, graphic images are the key. (West, p. 56)

Graphicacy is no longer the sole realm of artists and architects. Graphical skills and technologies are now essential to our survival.

Take care,

5 Comments on “Dyslexics Could Be Our Most Talented Data Visualizers”

By Kathryn GIlmore. August 22nd, 2011 at 7:53 pm

My son is dyslexic. His letters overlap and reverse. Is there anyway you can introduce this book to colleges and high schools. Some students depend strictly on academic knowledge provided by the schools and may not realize that they do have a place in the employment world. A warning schools do not use the word dyslexic because of the cost of accommodations for these students. It is hidden under reading and writing challenges.

By dboptimizer.com. August 27th, 2011 at 11:11 am

I like these ideas as my issues with writing and verbal communication have been a blessing which has pushed me towards designing graphical visualizations.
Thanks for this write up!
Kyle Hailey

By Amelia Williams. September 16th, 2011 at 8:25 am

It is interesting that some of the more interesting and effective conference/dialogue/meeting modalities such as the World Cafe involve participants drawing and use a graphical recorder role to capture what is emerging visually. (See http://www.thewordcafe.com)

By Larry Keller. September 21st, 2011 at 5:38 pm

On a completely different note, Temple Grandin literally memorized the pictures that her mother showed her as she fought through her early days of autism. When interviewed today, Ms. Grandin will tell interviewers to “Google me”…..this prompts her to bring up those visuals that her mother taught her and others that have become part of her adult life.

By Chelsea. September 22nd, 2011 at 2:08 pm

This is great! Another great book to take a look at is called The Gift of Dyslexia: Why Some of the Smartest People C. by Ronald D. Davis.