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Study: Dyslexia Is Not a Neurological Disorder But an Evolutionary Survival Trait

July 6, 2022

July 5, 2022

Dyslexia is not a neurological disorder or even an impairment, but rather a concession for having cognitive strengths in exploration, big-picture thinking, creativity, and problem-solving that have contributed to human survival amid changing environments. This insight comes from a new study published in Frontiers in Psychology that finds an association between the learning difference and “an explorative bias.”1

The researchers found that people with dyslexia (explorers) have strengths in experimentation, innovation, and searching for the unknown. In contrast, people without dyslexia (exploiters) have strengths in efficiency, refinement, selection, and in what is known. Researchers say that striking a balance between exploring new opportunities and exploiting the benefits of a particular choice is needed to ensure human survival.1

“The deficit-centered view of dyslexia isn’t telling the whole story,” 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. “We believe 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.”

Dyslexia Definition: Neurological Disorder

The World Federation of Neurology defines dyslexia 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.” 2

Twenty percent of the population, regardless of country, culture, and world region, has the learning difference. Dyslexia research has predominantly focused on understanding why and how individuals with dyslexia struggle with reading, writing, and spelling. 1

This new study adopted a different approach. Researchers reviewed existing data on the learning difference in psychology and neuroscience using the framework of “cognitive search,” a model examining how individuals process and identify resources, information, and ideas. (Researchers say this is the first analysis of studies on dyslexia using a cross-disciplinary approach with an evolutionary perspective.) 1

Dyslexia Definition: Big-Picture Thinking

They based findings on the complementary cognition theory of evolution, which suggests that early humans evolved to have different, but complementary, ways of thinking for survival. Several studies identified dyslexia as being highly heritable, implying that innumerable generations have passed down this “explorative” form of cognition. 3

“An explorative specialization in people with dyslexia could help explain why they have difficulties with tasks related to exploitation, such as reading and writing,” Dr. Taylor says. “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 recommend conducting further studies using the cognitive search model rather than the traditional “disorder” or “deficiency” paradigm.

Dyslexia’s Impact on Exploration & Education

The study says that educational systems mainly use exploitive thinking instead of explorative thinking, which may help to explain why students with dyslexia struggle in school. “Education systems that primarily assess an ability to reproduce information that is known, as opposed to using the information to develop new solutions and explore the unknown, puts more explorative individuals at a significant disadvantage,” says researchers. 1

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

Researchers recommend developing new means of education that benefit explorative ways of thinking and will better enable us to confront “the existential challenges presently facing our species and planet.” 1

This study may have implications regarding using the search perspective in research and in understanding other individuals with neurodevelopmental disorders such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or autism spectrum disorder (ASD).


1Taylor, H and Vestergaard MD. (2022). Developmental Dyslexia: Disorder or Specialization in Exploration? Frontiers in Psychology, >https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2022.889245

2World Federation of Neurology (1968). Report of Research Group on Dyslexia and World Illiteracy. London: World Federation of Neurology.

3Paracchini, S., Diaz, R., and Stein, J. (2016). “Chapter Two Advances in Dyslexia Genetics — New Insights Into the Role of Brain Asymmetries,” in Advances in Genetics, eds T. Friedmann, J. C. Dunlap, and S. F. Goodwin (Cambridge, MA: Academic Press), 53–97. >https://doi.org/10.1016/bs.adgen.2016.08.003

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