Much is made of how people with dyslexia are “creative”, “out of the box thinkers”, and “lateral thinkers”. But is this merely just a positive attitude, or is there some substance to the claims?
The evidence begins in the brain.
There is no universal agreement (as yet) of what it means to say that the dyslexic brain is different from the non-dyslexic brain. However, there is widespread agreement that there are differences. We can look at just a few of the theories below:
Minicolumns are interconnected networks of neurons, stacked in vertical columns on the outer layer of the brain, which appear to have a communicative, computational role in thinking, processing individual features of incoming information. The theory is that in autistic brains, these minicolumns are shorter, thicker, and closer together than in “typically developed” brains, effectively meaning that a lot of information is processed very quickly indeed, but it’s localised. In dyslexia, the minicolumns are taller, and spaced further apart than in “typically developed” brains, effectively meaning that while information takes slightly longer to travel around and between the minicolumns, there’s a far more “holistic” type of information processing going on, which explains why dyslexic people generally create more connections between functionally more diverse parts of the brain.
The Magnocellular Deficit Theory
This controversial and unproven theory states that dyslexia is a functional problem in the magnocellular visual pathway of the brain, which processes movement. That, or a problem in how the magnocellular pathway works in conjunction with the parvocellular visual pathway, which deals with fine detail and colour. It is claimed that this explains dyslexic difficulties with convergence, text tracking, and reading directionality.
The Hemispheric Balance Theory
This theory suggests that dyslexia is caused by unusual development in one or the other brain hemisphere. Typically, a child starting to read mainly uses the right side of the brain to recognise words. When this becomes easier, control moves to the left side of the brain. The Hemispheric Balance Theory claims that in dyslexia, the shift from right to left hemisphere does not occur, or that it occurs earlier than normal.
The Temporal Processing Theory
This theory suggests that dyslexia is a deficit in the processing of sound in relation to time. It may explain poor phonological awareness, as well as problems with verbal working memory.
Dyslexia and the Corpus Callosum
What’s particularly interesting about this area of theorising is that scientists generally cannot agree with one another. Some suggest that in dyslexic subjects, the corpus callosum is larger than in non-dyslexic subjects; while other suggest that it’s the other way round! Many researchers however agree that the development of the corpus callosum appears to have some connection with the development of dyslexia. The Corpus Callosum is responsible for transmitting neural messages between the hemispheres of the brain, and is a significant part of what allows hemispheric communication.
The brain points towards the evidence.
Regardless of which of the theories is right, or whether more than one of the theories is right, what we can say is that the dyslexic brain is indeed both structurally and functionally different from the non-dyslexic brain. Dr Beverly Steffert found that there appears to be a strong and causal connection between the dyslexic brain and heightened creativity, especially the abilities to solve complex puzzles, and mentally visualise and create structures and models.
💡 Tarver, Buss, and Maggiore found that people with dyslexia are able to learn and remember secondary information – the information that isn’t considered central to an issue – more easily than people without dyslexia. The downside of this is that it diverted study participants from their primary tasks; the upside was that there was a clear link between this and creativity.
💡 Shondrick, Serafica, Clark, and Miller conducted a study that concluded that dyslexia is linked to verbal intelligence, creativity, and interpersonal problem-solving.
💡 Sturm and Gorno-Tempini found evidence that children with dyslexia may have heightened social and emotional intelligence, and that dyslexia may well be linked with hidden interpersonal strengths. However, they warned that a heightened emotional sensitivity in dyslexic children can also be linked with an increased risk of anxiety and depression.
💡 Hong and Milgram found that study participants with dyslexia performed worse in academic problem-solving, but better than controls in visual and intuitive aspects of creative thinking.
💡 A study by the University of Ottawa in Canada reported that dyslexic subjects had a noticeably higher ability in intuitive aspects of creative thinking, and were both more open to new ideas and more willing to accept ambiguity.
💡 Everatt, Steffert, and Smythe (later confirmed by Çorlu, Özcan, & Korkmazlar) reported that dyslexic study participants had higher levels of creativity in figural tests. Adding weight to these results, Everatt and then later Pachalska, Bogdanowicz, Tomaszewska, Lockiewicz, and Bogdanowicz reported greater overall creativity in adults with dyslexia.
💡 Cockcroft and Hartgill showed that children with dyslexia were significantly better than non-dyslexic children at generating large quantities of ideas, and also that they could produce significantly more original responses than their non-dyslexic peers. They concluded that the children with dyslexia seemed to have higher than average abilities on certain dimensions of creativity, and that these abilities should be drawn on in education.
💡 Tafti, Hameedy, and Baghal investigated positive and negative aspects of dyslexia in the Iranian context. The authors compared memory and creative skills of students with and without dyslexia, finding that children with dyslexia performed significantly lower than the control group in both reading and verbal memory tests, as expected, yet better in visual memory and creativity / originality tasks.
💡 Kannangara, Carson, Puttaraju and Allen (2018), building on Agahi & Nicolson (2012) and Davis & Braun (1987), found that dyslexic subjects displayed problem-solving, high-level reasoning, creativity, visual-spatial abilities, and interpersonal strengths exceeding those of non-dyslexic subjects.
💡 Kapoula, Ruiz, Spector, Mocorovi, Gaertner, Quilici, and Vernet found in their study that while children and teenagers with dyslexia showed higher creativity scores than non-dyslexic children and teenagers, educational approaches to such children were crucial to advancing – or retarding – these same scores.
💡 Dr Neil Alexander-Passe has similarly published work on the connections between dyslexia and creativity; while Professor John Stein, professor of physiology and fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, has spent many years researching into the purportedly superior “holistic” and visual-spatial processing skills of dyslexics.
💡 Cancer, Mazoli, and Antonietti released a study in 2015 showing that dyslexic students did particularly well in tests carrying out unusual combinations of ideas, citing four other studies in their research (Davis & Braun, 1994; Eide & Eide, 2012; Jantzen, 2009; Wolfe, 2007).
💡 Meanwhile at the Royal College of Art – the world’s number one art and design university – 29% of current identify themselves as dyslexic, compared about 10-15% of the overall population. They believe that dyslexic people’s heightened visual and spatial awareness, problem-solving skills, and lateral-thinking abilities, mean that the thought processes that cause difficulty with understanding the printed word can also be a source of creativity.
Overall, studies and research, as well as anecdotal evidence and the prevalence of dyslexics among creatives and original thinkers, indicates that there is indeed a strong correlation between dyslexia and creativity. This correlation is almost certainly neurological in origin, rather than coincidental; and appropriate schooling and well-adjusted work environments may be key to accessing this talent.
See for instance: