“There were a lot of benefits to being dyslexic for me…I think I came into an appreciation of all those qualities of language…” Novelist Richard Ford
Although traditionally classified as a learning disability, dyslexia can also lead to advantages in thinking and behaving that enhance creativity.
Dyslexia is defined by one authority as “a specific learning disability that is neurological in origin.
“It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities.” [The International Dyslexia Association.]
Richard Ford has explained how it was a benefit to his creativity as a writer:
“When I finally did reconcile myself to how slow I was going to have to do it, then I think I came into an appreciation of all those qualities of language and of sentences that are not just the cognitive aspects.
“The syncopations, the sounds of words, what words look like, where paragraphs break, where lines break, all the poetical aspects of language…”
From my post: Your Creative Mind with Learning Differences.
[My title of that article is an acknowledgment that a number of people choose to think of dyslexia and other conditions as a “learning difference” rather than “disorder” – a potentially life-changing reframing for many people with ADHD or ADD like actor Charlize Theron; prosopagnosia (painter Chuck Close) and others.]
[Photo of Ford from his Amazon author page.]
Director Joe Wright (“Atonement”; “Pride and Prejudice”; “Anna Karenina” and others) has commented, “Because I think visually, not being able to read meant that other parts of my brain were pushed further…”
– From my post Considering Carefully: Director Joe Wright on Dyslexia.
Here is a video” What is Dyslexia?
Book: The Dyslexic Advantage: Unlocking the Hidden Potential of the Dyslexic Brain by Brock L. Eide, MD, Fernette F. Eide, MD.
Here is another example of an artist finding that dyslexia provided both challenges and advantages in their creative life – plus, it is an excuse for me to post a photo of her exquisitely beautiful face:
Keira Knightley struggled with dyslexia earlier in her life, and, according to a Los Angeles Times article about her performance in ‘Anna Karenina’, she “listened to a handful of books on tape, many of which were historic literary works from authors such as Austen and Charles Dickens.”
That probably affected her choice of roles, and facility with dialogue.
From photo description on my Facebook/The Inner Actor page.
Here are more examples of creative people with dyslexia, plus some of the neuroscience about the learning difference:
Whoopi Goldberg is “one of the only ten people to win an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony Award; and is the first woman to be honored with the prestigious Mark Twain Prize for American Humor…
“She has written three books and is a UNICEF International Goodwill Ambassador…
“It’s hard to imagine that this successful woman once struggled in school, hearing words such as ‘dumb’ and ‘stupid’ directed at her” [on account of her dyslexia].
“I knew I wasn’t stupid, and I knew I wasn’t dumb,” she said in an interview with the Academy of Achievement, into which she was inducted in 1994.
From profile on site: The Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity.
Henry Winkler had similar negative reactions earlier in his life:
“School was this immovable object. I was told I wasn’t living up to my potential, that I was stupid. My parents, being short Germans, were convinced I was merely lazy.”
After graduating from the Yale School of Drama, he supported himself by doing commercials.
“Reading cold was, like, out of the question,” he says, “I improvised everything. They’d say, ‘You aren’t reading the words,’ and I’d say, ‘I’m just giving you the essence.’ I was really good at getting commercials.”
[From article: He’s happy these days – Henry Winkler battled early dyslexia and some post-Fonzie doldrums to create an evergreen career as a director, actor and author. By Mimi Avins, Los Angeles Times Nov 25, 2005.]
He pointed out, “People with dyslexia are often dreamers, and good at abstract thought… When I’m writing an action scene, I can just see it happening.” [Paraphrased from CNN interview, 2001]
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The Dyslexic Brain
The brain physiology and neuropsychology underlying dyslexia are very big topics; here are a few perspectives:
Psychologist Linda Silverman explains, “Tom West suggests that left-hemisphere deficiencies, such as dyslexia, are fundamentally linked to right-hemisphere strengths, such as visual thinking, spatial ability, pattern recognition, problem solving, heightened intuition and creativity.”
That is a quote from her book “Upside-Down Brilliance: The Visual Spatial Learner” – referring to West’s book: “In the Mind’s Eye: Visual Thinkers, Gifted People With Dyslexia and Other Learning Difficulties, Computer Images and the Ironies of Creativity.”
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In his book: “Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined,” cognitive psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman refers to a study by Catya von Karolyi, Ellen Winner, Wendy Gray, and Gordon Sherman: “Dyslexia linked to talent: Global visual-spatial ability” in the journal Brain and Language.
The researchers “argue that dyslexic individuals may excel at visual-spatial tasks that rely on the right hemisphere, because the right hemisphere tends to process information holistically.”
They evaluated people viewing “impossible figures”: objects that “seem to be 3-D but could not actually exist in 3-D space. Examples can be found in M. C. Escher’s paintings, such as his famous impossible staircase painting, Ascending and Descending.
[This is a detail – click to view larger.]
“If you scan this painting bit by bit, without integrating the whole, you’ll conclude that the figure is possible, but if you scan the picture holistically, you’ll be able to see that the parts conflict.”
The researchers “found that dyslexic individuals were significantly faster at recognizing impossible figures as impossible, and their faster speed didn’t sacrifice accuracy. This suggests one upside of poor reading skills: rapid and accurate ‘holistic inspection.’”
[Another article that mentions this research quotes the study authors: “The compelling implication of this finding is that dyslexia should not be characterized only by deficit, but also by talent.” From The Upside of Dyslexia by Annie Murphy Paul, The New York Times, Feb 4, 2012.]
[Ellen Winner is author of Gifted Children: Myths and Realities, in which she notes that children “gifted in drawing have a higher incidence of reading problems such as dyslexia.”]
Artists with dyslexia
Kaufman notes, “The truth is that people with dyslexia thrive in many fields. Famous dyslexic artists include Pablo Picasso, Leonardo Da Vinci, Vincent Van Gogh, Michelangelo, Chuck Close, and Andy Warhol.” [He references the book: Living with Dyslexia by Nicola Brunswick.]
“Famous designers include Tommy Hilfiger and Paul Smith. Sculptor John Mishler once wrote, ‘Being dyslexic has given me an enhanced imagination … in my head I see visual images that are often turned into sculptures without any drawings on paper. It took me a long time to realize that being dyslexic was a gift.’”
Kaufman continues, “Also, the written word need not always bar the dyslexic from achieving greatness. Many famous writers have not only compensated for dyslexia, but used their reading difficulty as a driving force.”
One example he gives: “Piers Anthony is one of the most successful science fiction writers of our time, racking up twenty-one New York Times paperback bestsellers in one decade. Xanth, perhaps his most well-known and popular series, has reached levels of success most science fiction writers only dream of achieving.”
In their interview: “Introducing Conversations on Creativity (Starting with Writer Piers Anthony)” (on Kaufman’s Beautiful Minds blog), Piers Anthony comments, “I was not a good student in grade school. In fact it took me three years and five schools to make it through first grade. I had trouble learning to read.
“My elder daughter was diagnosed dyslexic, but in my day dyslexia didn’t exist, merely stupid students. So I may have set a record for stupidity. I did not do well in English, being unable to spell correctly.”
Kaufman notes “Other famous writers with dyslexia include Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Ford (Independence Day), novelist and screenwriter John Irving (The Cider House Rules), and Edgar Award winner Lynda La Plante (Prime Suspect).
“Perhaps instead of labeling dyslexics as learning disabled, we should call them visually gifted.”
From book: Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined by Scott Barry Kaufman, PhD.
See video interview with Kaufman and read several reviews of his book in post: Scott Barry Kaufman On Shifting Awareness To Be More Creative.