Into the Dyslexic brain — 4 illustrated differences to guide you through how the brain learns


0. Preface

  1. Difference in the structure of the Cerebral Cortex and its Microcircuits: fine-detail processing vs. big-picture processing
  2. Difference in Phonological Information Processing
  3. Difference with Working Memory: preferences for phonological data vs. visual spatial data
  4. Procedural Learning and Procedural Memory: mastering routines vs. mastering innovation
  5. About the Author
  6. References

Whatever kind of brain you were born with, discovering that other people’s brains may have a completely different way of processing information may come as a revelation to you. If you understand your differences, you may discover that you have powerful abilities that you can leverage.

It happened to me. Four years ago I finally discovered that I am dyslexic. Because of this, I trained different information processing techniques to improve my learning ability. For example, today I am working with automation of data management processes (e.g. invoicing process), where I feel I am shining with my ability to map processes, helping my team visualizing and redesigning them…

I committed myself to supporting people with neurodiversities, such as autism, dyslexia and ADHD (e.g. supporting SAP, HP and Specialisterne in developing talent programs for people with autism). This article is a starting point to share my knowledge about the brain’s hidden potential, comparing how normal brains and dyslexic brains can learn…

Let’s start!

1. Difference in the structure of the Cerebral Cortex and its Microcircuits: fine-detail processing vs. big-picture processing

In the cerebral cortex neurons are piled up into minicolumns (80–120 neurons per minicolumn). Minicolumns are connected to each other via ‘axons’ (like cables). This way they form circuits of minicolumns.

Circuits of minicolumns work together to process information.

Circuits may be more localized or larger, depending on how distant minicolumns are from each other:

Case 1: Autistic Brains. Less space between minicolumns — minicolumns tend to connect to other closer minicolumns, forming localized circuits.

Case 2: Dyslexic Brains. Higher space between minicolumns — minicolumns tend to connect with other minicolumns in more distant places of the brain.

Case 3: ‘Normal’ Brains. Somewhere in between case 1 and 2.

CASE 3: NORMAL BRAIN. Normal brains range from case 1 to case 2. Usually normal brains start their reasoning process with big-picture processing. Then, when the big picture is in place, they tend to shift to fine-detailed processing. We can say that normal brains show some of the benefits from both case 1 and 2, but those benefits are milder.

2. Difference in Phonological (Information) Processing

Phonological Processing is the key to process the sound structure of words. It is the process which helps us recognize the sounds when we hear them (regardless of our ability to read). It also helps us associate sounds to letters when we read.

Dyslexic folk like me are typically lacking in this area.

Downsides of lacking phonological processing:

  • Reading and Spelling tend to be slower and mistakes may occur
  • Understanding word meaning may be slower and difficult
  • New words may generate confusion
  • Issues in understanding how words relate to each other (e.g. grammar)

Upsides that dyslexics tend to develop to compensate:

  • Non-verbal conceptualization: thinking with mental pictures in order to build the meaning of sentences while they are heard or read.
  • Hyper concentration and mindfulness: reading and listening with high focus, as dyslexics cannot fully and unconsciously automate these types of tasks. Note: mindfulness often leads dyslexics to be good at active listening.
  • Creativity, alias Right Brain thinking: while the left brain processes language details, the right brain masters creative thinking. Dyslexics use the right brain to find general and contextual concepts that fill the gaps when they do not fully understand parts of a written text
  • People skills: for example, learning how to ask for help in order to actually get it; and learning how to delegate tasks (recognizing what other people are good at, and passionate about, and willing to do).

3. Difference with Working Memory: preferences for phonological data vs. visual spatial data

Working memory is the kind of short term memory that helps us keep information in our mind while we are processing it (it works like the RAM of our computers).

Information processed in the working memory can then become part of long term memory, if needed.

Working Memory mainly stores phonological data (that is, how the words sound — it refers to information extracted from language and recorded like audio files into the brain) and visual spatial data ( environmental data which represent where objects are placed and what objects look like — but visual spatial data are also mental maps or visual representations in 3D).

How does working memory store phonological data when we listen or read?

Note: the phonological loop also works when we think about sentences that we want to write, and it keeps them in working memory (in ‘audio format’) as long as we need to convert our sentences into the letters that we use to write.

As dyslexics are lacking in phonological processing, which is the basis for the phonological loop, dyslexics usually have some downsides to their working memory (and to some related executive functions):

  • Slower language based learning: as dyslexics need longer time to process phonological information, the dyslexic brain may fail to process all the phonological information before the phonologic loop fades away.
  • Difficulties with task management: organization, planning and execution of tasks.
  • Difficulties in maintaining concentration spontaneously: working memory helps remind us what we are paying attention to. You could think of having poor working memory as the equivalent of walking into a room and forgetting what you came in to get.

Upsides that dyslexics tend to develop to compensate:

  • Relying on visual-spatial working memory:

(1) Learning based on visual-spatial data: visual-spatial data (which represents where objects are placed and what objects look like) tend to be stronger in dyslexics’ memory. Therefore dyslexics have a preference to learn new things by looking at them and experiencing them in the real world, rather than by reading books.

Learning based on environmental data also means that dyslexics tend to store their memories as visual examples of concepts (e.g. happy son = me playing football with my son at the park and he is smiling at me). This way dyslexics can become good at anchoring their goals into concrete actions.

(2) Spatial reasoning: for example, while looking at a diagram or at a mechanism, your (right) brain can create, move around and store a 3D representation of that mechanism, and hold it in your mind. Those 3D representations involve visual data, but also sensory and tactile data.

  • Mind-mapping and logical associations: quickly picking up key-words extracted from a speech or from a text, then creating diagrams or tree-maps where keywords are connected to each other in a meaningful way. Drawing mind maps on paper before being able to keep them in mind is a common technique taught in school to dyslexics children.

4. Procedural Learning and Procedural Memory: mastering routines vs. mastering innovation

Procedural memory aids the performance of tasks without conscious awareness. It is at the basis of learning cognitive and motor activities: from tying shoes to riding a bike, from reading to flying an airplane, from sculpting to playing basketball.

Procedural memory is created by procedural learning. This allows you to repeat a complex activity over and over again, until all the relevant neural systems in the brain work together to automatically produce the activity.

At least half of the individuals with dyslexia have significant problems with procedural learning. As result, they will be slower to master any rule based, procedural, or rote skill that should become automatic through practice. Academic skills like reading and writing are heavily rule dependent (think about grammar and syntax that we use unconsciously when we talk). When dyslexics start going to school they need way more time and repetitions before grammar rules become automatic.

Downsides of lacking procedural learning:

  • Slower to master execution of any rule based, procedural, or rote skills and tasks. Slow processing speed of procedural tasks.
  • Cannot rely too much on implicit learning: implicit learning is unconscious learning and learning procedures simply by observing others. Dyslexics may prefer observing others to learn, but they are not naturally good at replicating others perfectly. Dyslexics tend to do things their way!
  • Difficulties with sequencing, time awareness, timing and pacing.

Upsides and abilities that dyslexics build instead:

  • Relying on explicit and conscious learning: learning by breaking down tasks into smaller steps demonstrated clearly, then memorizing the steps consciously with different strategies (visual working memory, mind mapping and logical associations, story telling, etc.).
  • Innovation led by hyper concentration and mindfulness: in order to learn, dyslexics often need to really focus and think about what they are doing. As a consequence, it has been found that dyslexics often innovate and experiment with routine procedures. In this process they find new and better ways of doing things.
  • In contrast, individuals with strong procedural learning abilities quickly learn to perform tasks in the exact way they were taught. Since they do not need to think about the tasks, they less often feel the need to innovate.

About the Author: Alessia Covello

After years spent learning how to master my own dyslexia, I decided to commit myself to empower people with neurodiversities.

Currently I am the co-founder of the Brain Health Podcast, which aims at breaking prejudice about brain conditions, while I am also mentoring younger people with dyslexia.

Previously I worked for SAP, Hewlett Packard and Specialisterne to develop their talent programs for people with autism across the USA, Australia, Spain, Denmark, and Brazil.

At the moment, with my articles and with the Brain Health Podcast I aim to break prejudice about brain conditions, and to make them a normal conversation into the workplace. My vision for the future is to foster a mentorship programme where entrepreneurs and business professionals with experience with neurodiversity (especially dyslexia, ADHD, autism) could mentor younger neurodiverse people who wish to boost their careers.

If you are dyslexic and looking for a peer to share good reflections with, you are welcome to contact me on Linkedin here

In my working life I am a life science IT consultant working on helping Life Science companies providing better services and pharma to patients. Working at the crossroad of Life Science and IT, I am deeply fascinated about the potential that technology has to both cure patients more efficiently and safely through e.g. digital therapeutics and distant monitoring, but also to allow better accessibility of treatments to patients.

Main References:

  • Dyslexia’s Competitive Edge. Tiffany Sunday, (2015).
  • In the Mind’s Eye: Creative Visual Thinkers, Gifted Dyslexics, and the Rise of Visual Technologies. T.G. West, (2007).
  • Memory and processing of visual and spatial information. H. D. Zimmer & J. Engelkamp, (1996).
  • Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. M. Wolf, (2007).
  • The Dyslexic Advantage. Dr Brock L.Eide & Dr Fernette F.Eide, (2011).
  • The Gift of Dyslexia. Ronald D.Davis, (2010).
  • The Right Mind: making Sense of the Hemispheres. R. Ornstein, (1997).
  • Working Memory. The psychology of learning and motivation. A. Baddeley & G. Hitch (1974).

Proof Reading by Ann Fonseca