If you do a brain scan on a person with dyslexia, the images that are produced seem strange. In certain critical parts of the brain—those that deal with reading and processing words—dyslexics have less gray matter. They don’t have as many brain cells in those regions as they should. As the fetus develops inside the womb, neurons are supposed to travel to the appropriate areas of the brain, taking their places like pieces on a chessboard. But for some reason, the neurons of dyslexics sometimes get lost along the way. They end up in the wrong place. The brain has something called the ventricular system, which functions as the brain’s entry and exit point. Some people with reading disorders have neurons lining their ventricles, like passengers stranded in an airport.

While an image of the brain is being made, a patient performs a task, and then a neuroscientist looks to see what parts of the brain have been activated in response to that task. If you ask a dyslexic to read when he or she is having a brain scan, the parts that are supposed to light up might not light up at all. The scan looks like an aerial photo of a city during a blackout. Dyslexics use a lot more of the right hemisphere of their brains during reading than normal readers do. The right hemisphere is the conceptual side. That’s the wrong half of the brain for a precise and rigorous task like reading. Sometimes when a dyslexic reads, every step will be delayed, as if the different parts of the brain responsible for reading were communicating via a weak connection. One of the ways to test for the presence of dyslexia in a small child is to have him engage in “rapid automatized naming." Show him one color after another—a red dot, then a green dot, then a blue dot, then a yellow dot—and check his response. See the color. Recognize the color. Attach a name to the color. Say the name. That’s automatic in most of us. It’s not in someone with a reading disorder; somewhere along the way, the links between those four steps start to break down. Ask a four-year-old: Can you say the word “banana" without the buh? Or say, Listen to the following three sounds: cuh, ah, and tuh. Can you combine them into “cat"? Or take “cat," “hat," and “dark." Which one of those words doesn’t rhyme? Easy questions for most four-year-olds. Really hard questions for dyslexics. Many people used to think that what defines dyslexics is that they get words backwards—“cat" would be “tac," or something like that—making it sound like dyslexia is a problem in the way the words are seen. But it is much more profound than that. Dyslexia is a problem in the way people hear and manipulate sounds. The difference between bah and dah is a subtlety in the first 40 milliseconds of the syllable. Human language is based on the assumption that we can pick up that 40-millisecond difference, and the difference between the bah sound and the dah sound can be the difference between getting something right and getting something catastrophically wrong. Can you imagine the consequences of having a brain so sluggish that when it comes to putting together the building blocks of words, those crucial 40 milliseconds simply go by too quickly?

Photo: Bloomberg
Photo: Bloomberg

“Usually you get a diagnosis at eight or nine," she went on. “And we find that by that point, there are already a lot of serious psychological implications, because by that time, you’ve been struggling for three years. Maybe you were the cool kid on the playground when you were four. Then you entered kindergarten and all your peers suddenly started reading, and you can’t figure it out. So you get frustrated. Your peers may think you’re stupid. Your parents may think you’re lazy. You have very low self-esteem, which leads to an increased rate of depression. Kids with dyslexia are more likely to end up in the juvenile system, because they act up. It’s because they can’t figure things out. It’s so important in our society to read."

You wouldn’t wish dyslexia on your child. Or would you?

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...What do we mean when we call something a disadvantage? Conventional wisdom holds that a disadvantage is something that ought to be avoided—that it is a setback or a difficulty that leaves you worse off than you would be otherwise. But that is not always the case....I want to explore the idea that there are such things as “desirable difficulties." That concept was conceived by Robert Bjork and Elizabeth Bjork, two psychologists at the University of California, Los Angeles, and it is a beautiful and haunting way of understanding how underdogs come to excel.

Consider, for example, the following puzzle.

1. A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

What’s your instinctive response? I’m guessing that it is that the ball must cost 10 cents. That can’t be right, though, can it? The bat is supposed to cost $1.00 more than the ball.

So if the ball costs 10 cents, the bat must cost $1.10, and we’ve exceeded our total. The right answer must be that the ball costs 5 cents.

Here’s another question:

2. If it takes 5 machines 5 minutes to make 5 widgets, how long would it take 100 machines to make 100 widgets?

David and Goliath—Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants: By Malcolm Gladwell, Penguin/Allen Lane, 320 pages, Rs 699
David and Goliath—Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants: By Malcolm Gladwell, Penguin/Allen Lane, 320 pages, Rs 699

These puzzles are two of the three questions that make up the world’s shortest intelligence test.* It’s called the Cognitive Reflection Test (CRT). It was invented by the Yale professor Shane Frederick, and it measures your ability to understand when something is more complex than it appears—to move past impulsive answers to deeper, analytic judgments.

Frederick argues that if you want a quick way to sort people according to their level of basic cognitive ability, his little test is almost as useful as tests that have hundreds of items and take several hours to finish. To prove his point, Frederick gave the CRT to students at nine American colleges, and the results track pretty closely with how students from those colleges would rank on more traditional intelligence tests. Students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—perhaps the brainiest college in the world—averaged 2.18 correct answers out of three. Students at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, another extraordinarily elite institution, averaged 1.51 right answers out of three. Harvard students scored 1.43; the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, 1.18; and the University of Toledo 0.57...

Can dyslexia turn out to be a desirable difficulty? It is hard to believe that it can, given how many people struggle with the disorder throughout their lives—except for a strange fact. An extraordinarily high number of successful entrepreneurs are dyslexic. A recent study by Julie Logan at City University London puts the number somewhere around a third. The list includes many of the most famous innovators of the past few decades. Richard Branson, the British billionaire entrepreneur, is dyslexic. Charles Schwab, the founder of the discount brokerage that bears his name, is dyslexic, as are the cell phone pioneer Craig McCaw; David Neeleman, the founder of JetBlue; John Chambers, the CEO of the technology giant Cisco; Paul Orfalea, the founder of Kinko’s—to name just a few. The neuroscientist Sharon Thompson-Schill remembers speaking at a meeting of prominent university donors—virtually all of them successful businesspeople—and on a whim asking how many of them had ever been diagnosed with a learning disorder. “Half the hands went up," she said. “It was unbelievable."

There are two possible interpretations for this fact. One is that this remarkable group of people triumphed in spite of their disability: they are so smart and so creative that nothing—not even a lifetime of struggling with reading—could stop them. The second, more intriguing, possibility is that they succeeded, in part, because of their disorder—that they learned something in their struggle that proved to be of enormous advantage. Would you wish dyslexia on your child? If the second of these possibilities is true, you just might.

Edited excerpts from David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants with permission from Penguin Books India. The book releases in India on 15 October.

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