Is Dyslexia a superpower?

Table of Contents

1 Intro

Everybody kind of wondered why Ali had this miraculous ability to
dodge a punch, and some doctors I talked to said it might've actually
been connected to his dyslexia, that when you're dyslexic your brain
works differently. When you learn to read, your brain gets re-wired so
that you focus really carefully on one thing, you can concentrate
really hard on those letters on the page.

But when you never learn to read, your brain remains more accessible
to outside forces. You can maybe hear and understand two conversations
at one time, because your brain hasn't been re-wired by the process of
learning to read.

Ali, because he learned to read very late and never really very well,
may have been better at picking up visual clues than most people. He
may have been able to see little signs in his opponent's body that
suggested when and where the punch was going to come. It's a
fascinating theory, I think.

This is an excerpt from an interview on Fresh Air with Jonathan Eig, the author of a biography of Muhammad Ali 1. I was intrigued but skeptical of this idea, so I decided to do some research.

I quickly learned that boxing isn't the only domain in which dyslexics have a purported advantage. Malcom Gladwell popularized the idea that dyslexia is a "desirable difficulty" in his 2013 book David and Goliath, because dyslexics are forced to develop alternative learning strategies.

There might be something to this. Evidently, there are a surprising number of talented dyslexic artists 2. Also, apparently a lot of famous, successful people are dyslexic. Like, a lot.

Here are just a few lists of famous, successful people with dyslexia. Combine all of those names and you basically get a Who's Who list of the 19th and 20th century: Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates…

Thumb through an American history book and pick a name at random: George Washington? Dyslexic. Abraham Lincoln? Yup. Ben Franklin? Check. Nelson Rockefeller, Henry Ford, the Wright Brothers, Walt Disney, General Patton, Dwight Eisenhower? You guessed it, all dyslexic.

At this point, I decided something weird was going on. Either:

  1. A shadowy cabal with the power to manipulate Google search rankings is running a sophisticated, pro-dyslexia, propaganda campaign
  2. A lot of well-meaning people for some reason mistakenly believe that dyslexia is a superpower, or…
  3. Dyslexia is legitimately a superpower

My prior for #1 is pretty low, but I wasn't sure what to make of #2 vs. #3. It's well-established that the brain can compensate for the loss of one sense by reallocating the unused gray matter to another, as when a blind person's visual cortex is appropriated for speech-processing 3. So the idea that decreased verbal ability could be offset by increased abilities in another domain sounds plausible, at least.

Fortunately, psychologists have spent a lot of time and grant money studying this.

2 von Károlyi and Winner's research

Most of the papers I found focused on the purported advantage in visuo-spatial abilities. I started with this study 4 by Winner, von Károlyi, et. al., which was funded by the International Dyslexia Association. This study was cited by almost every other paper that I read, so apparently it was pretty important.

The authors ran three studies in which they administered various tests of spatial abilities. They even threw in a drawing exercise, to test for artistic ability. Contrary to their predictions, not only did the dyslexic group perform no better than the control group, they actually performed worse on almost every test.

von Károlyi was busy in 2001 - in addition to the previous paper, she published a study that focused on a possible link between dyslexia and enhanced "global" visuo-spatial processing 5. The premise of the study is fascinating and goes something like this:

Studies of brain-damaged artists suggest that the left-brain handles local, detail-oriented, visual-spatial processing, whereas the right-brain does global, holistic spatial processing. Language processing, which dyslexics struggle with, is mediated by the left-brain. Therefore, if dyslexics did have an advantage in visual-spatial processing, it may be confined to right-brain dominant tasks that involve global (as opposed to local) processing.

It's a fascinating hypothesis, but the the experimental results were mixed. In the test of local/left-brain visual-spatial ability, there was no significant difference between the two groups. In the test of global visual-spatial ability, there was no difference in accuracy, but the dyslexic group did respond faster (N=62, p=.03). The author took this as evidence that global visual-spatial processing might be slightly more efficient in the dyslexic brain.

This was promising enough for the International Dyslexia Association to break out the checkbook for another study, so von Károlyi and Winner reunited for this 2003 paper 6, in which they successfully replicated von Károlyi's results (N=64, p=.0003): the dyslexic group recognized "Impossible Figures" (a test of global spatial-processing ability) more quickly than the control group.

So the theory that Ali's dyslexia contributed to his success in boxing is sounding more plausible. After all, "holistic visual-spatial processing" sounds like psychology-speak for what boxers are doing when they anticipate their opponent's next punch. In a sport where you can literally die 7 by failing to move your chin quickly enough, you want that right-hemisphere firing on all cylinders.

3 The fMRI study

At this point you're probably thinking, "If only we had high-resolution brain scans of dyslexics performing tasks that involve global visual-spatial processing, then we'd have indisputable evidence of a dyslexic advantage!"

Which do you want first: the good news or the bad news?

The good news is that Diehl et. al. stuck a bunch of people with dyslexia in an fMRI machine and quizzed them with von Károlyi's Impossible Figures 8, and they did see marked differences between dyslexic and typical brains.

The bad news is that the results still weren't 100% conclusive.

Their findings were consistent with von Károlyi's results in that the dyslexic group was slightly faster on some tests of visual-spatial ability, namely the Impossible Figures test and a test of mental rotation abilities. But, because of course they were, the dyslexic group was only faster when tested outside of the fMRI machine.

Also, the evidence with regards to von Károlyi's theory re: global vs. local processing was mixed: the dyslexics were faster to recognize Impossible Figures, but no faster on the other test of global spatial ability. However, it's difficult to draw any conclusions from this second test because it required the subject to recognize a target letter which is itself composed of smaller letters, like this letter "H" which is composed of the letter "S":

SSS      SSS
SSS      SSS
SSS      SSS
SSS      SSS
SSS      SSS
SSS      SSS
SSS      SSS
SSS      SSS

I don't mean to go full, arm-chair, experimental psychologist, but did no one that reviewed the design of this experiment notice a potential issue? Like the fact that their test of visual-spatial ability involves the alphabet? For a group whose membership criteria is essentially, "Has trouble with the alphabet?"

To their credit, the authors do acknowledge this shortcoming in their discussion of the results. And despite these frustrations, the fMRI data was revealing.

In neuro-typical brains, the Impossible Figures caused the brain to light up with activity, whereas printed text barely provoked a response at all. Relative to the neuro-typical group, the dyslexic brains were less stimulated by the Impossible Figures but significantly more stimulated by the text. In other words, the dyslexic group had to work harder than the neurotypical group to process text, but less hard to process the Impossible Figures.

Not only was the overall level of brain activity different between the two groups - the location of the activity differed, too. In neuro-typical subjects, text caused the left-hemisphere to light up, whereas the Impossible Figures predominantly activated the right-hemisphere. But there was little differentiation in the dyslexic brains: both the left and right hemispheres stayed active, regardless of the task.

The authors concluded that there is probably some trade-off between language processing and spatial processing, and that faster response times for a given task (i.e., reading vs. visual-spatial processing) are correlated with more efficient neural circuitry.

If there is a trade-off between language and spatial processing, then this raises an interesting question: are dyslexics born better at spatial processing? Or does the process of learning to read reorganize the brain at the expense of spatial processing? That is, does becoming a better reader make you worse at spatial visualization?

Unsurprisingly, the authors conclude that answering this question will require further study. If I have learned one thing from reading all of these psych papers, it's that the only thing that psychologists can ever be sure of is that, while their results are promising, nothing is settled and everything warrants further study.

As for me, I've had enough studies: I'm ready to answer the question that started this whole investigation: yes, Muhammad Ali probably had some atypical neuro-circuitry in his right-hemisphere that made him slightly better-than-average at dodging punches.

I'm still confused by something, though: what about Einstein and all of the dyslexic super-geniuses? Surely a small advantage in global visual-spatial processing can't account for what seems to be a massive overrepresentation of dyslexics in the Who's Who list of modern, Western history?

Ok, I lied. We need more studies.

4 Meta-analysis #1

First, let's get one thing out of the way: the case for dyslexics having generally superior spatial abilities is pretty weak. If people with dyslexia do have enhanced visual-spatial abilities, then they hide them very well when subjected to formal testing.

In "Reading disability and enhanced dynamic spatial reasoning: A review of the literature" 9, the authors compiled and analyzed the results of 21 studies that examined spatial-processing abilities in people with reading disabilities ("RD", in their terminology). The conclusion:

RD samples do not perform better on dynamic spatial reasoning tasks
than nRD samples. In fact, subjects with RD most often perform worse
than, or equal to, controls... The few studies that found a
significant RD advantage tended to deal with virtual or Impossible
Figures types of tests, and the RD advantage was most often limited to
measures of [reaction time].

Three of the four "studies that found a significant RD advantage" are ones that we've already seen: two are from Winner and/or von Károlyi, and the other is Diehl's fMRI study.

The fourth study is the triumphantly-titled, "A Virtual Reality Test (FINALLY!!!!) Identifies the Visuospatial Strengths of Adolescents with Dyslexia, Thereby Justifying The International Dyslexia Foundation's Continued Funding Of This Type of Research and Vindicating The Unsubstantiated Diagnoses of Dyslexia in Many Famous, Dead Scientists."

Just kidding, the actual title is just, "A Virtual Reality Test Identifies the Visuospatial Strengths of Adolescents with Dyslexia" 10. Also, my lawyers 11 have asked me to emphasize that the previous paragraph constitutes a joke and that the authors of this paper include the Disclosure Statement: "The authors have no conflict of interest."

This study tested participant's spatial memory in "virtual reality," which apparently in 2009 meant, "a rendering of a 3D-environment on a laptop screen." The study's enthusiastic-sounding title belies the authors' circumspection about the experimental results, which suggested only a modest increase in spatial memory among the dyslexic group. A subsequent study failed to replicate their results 12.

So to summarize our findings, so far: dyslexics may be slightly faster at certain types of spatial processing (e.g., the Impossible Figures task), but in general they have slightly lower spatial abilities than the rest of the population.

One possible criticism of this meta-analysis is that most of the experimental data that it aggregates is based on paper-and-pencil tests. And though the Virtual Reality study failed to replicate, there was at least one other study that found a speed-advantage among the dyslexic group when the tests were administered via a laptop 13.

From a purely intuitive perspective, it wouldn't be surprising if paper-and-pencil tests failed to accurately measure visual-spatial ability, especially in dyslexics. In fact, it would be more surprising if "sitting quietly at a desk answering multiple-choice questions about abstract shapes" was an effective way to gauge spatial ability, especially among a group of kids with a poor track-record in a classroom setting.

Also, the fMRI data is a pretty strong signal that there is something different about the way that the dyslexic brain performs spatial processing. It would be surprising if that neurological difference didn't manifest as a difference in ability.

So we're no closer to an explanation of Einstein. Perhaps another meta-analysis holds the key to this mystery?

5 Meta-analysis #2

Here's where things get interesting. The meta-analytic findings of "Meta-analytic findings reveal lower means but higher variances in visuo-spatial ability in dyslexia" 14 reveal lower means but higher variances in visuo-spatial ability in dyslexia (sorry).

This study collated the experimental results of 28 other studies. Presumably their dataset has a lot of overlap with the 21 studies from the previous meta-analysis, so all of the same caveats re: the validity of paper-and-pencil testing still apply. But whereas the conclusion of the other study focused on the lower average scores for the dyslexic population, the authors of this study noticed that the variance was higher. In their words:

An alternative way to account for the inconclusive results regarding
visuospatial processing in dyslexia would be to posit that there exist
subsets of people with dyslexia who have extremely enhanced or
impoverished visuospatial processing abilities, arising from greater
variance in dyslexic samples.

A subset of people with dyslexia with "extremely enhanced" visuospatial abilities? Tell me more…

The notion of increased variance in one subpopulation has been most
notably employed in the study of sex differences in intelligence and
mathematical ability (Arden & Plomin, 2006; Halpern et al., 2007; Hyde
& Mertz, 2009; Irwing & Lynn, 2005), leading some authors to claim
that, ‘a small difference in variance [between males and females] may
have consequences at the extremes of ability resulting in visibly
unequal numbers of one sex among the less able or among the elite’
(Arden & Plomin, 2006, p.46).

Uhhhhh, OK. Not going to comment on this one, other than to note that "a slight increase in variance leading to overrepresentation of one group at the extreme ends of ability" would fit perfectly with the observation that a shocking number of famous people are supposedly dyslexic.

6 Einstein, Edison, Tesla, et. al.

So maybe dyslexics tend towards the extremes of the spatial abilities bell-curve, and Einstein et. al. were the lucky ones who landed way out on the right tail. This seems plausible, and there could be something to it.

But after taking a closer look at the diagnoses on a case-by-case basis, I have a simpler explanation: most of these people weren't actually dyslexic.

6.1 Einstein

Let's get Einstein out of the way first.

As far as I can tell, the theory that he was dyslexic is founded on just two pieces of evidence: he learned to speak late, and he struggled academically. But by his family's account, Einstein spoke in complete sentences by age 2. Also, he was at the top of his class in grade school, and he read enough philosophy to have an informed opinion regarding Immanuel Kant by age 13.

He did fail his college entrance exam on the first attempt, and this is often cited as evidence of a "learning disability". But he was also taking the exam two years ahead of schedule, and apparently his heart was never really in it 15

So Einstein's probably out. What about Edison?

6.2 Edison

Curiously, Edison's entry in Wikipedia's List of People With Dyslexia cites no sources.

The Edison-as-dyslexic case again rests on his supposed struggles in school. He evidently had a ginormous melon head as a kid, which his teacher took as evidence of an "addled brain." Edison got kicked out of school after 2 months for reading too quickly and being kind of a twat about it 15, so he used his newfound free-time to attempt to read every book in the Detroit Free Library 16, including The History of the World and The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Being a voracious reader doesn't necessarily exonerate him, but I think the burden of proof is on the prosecution, here.

6.3 Tesla

Tesla's Wikipedia entry does cite sources, but the first one 17 just says this:

Some famous inventors (Michael Faraday, James Clerk Maxwell, and
Nikola Tesla, artist and inventor Leonardo da Vinci, and others) also
display weakness in reading and writing or using language (West,

Sure, OK… Let's follow that reference and see what "West, 1991" 18 has to say:

Tesla is of special interest for us primarily because of his
especially vivid visual imagination. He does not appear to have been
dyslexic or learning disabled in any of the usual ways.

Alright, so that's a no for Tesla.

6.4 Anyone?

At this rate we'll be here forever, so let me save us some time:

  • Steve Jobs?
    • No, but he dropped out of an elite liberal arts college and once filled out a job application with sloppy handwriting 19.
  • Bill Gates?
    • No, and I can't even figure out where this one is coming from.
  • Auguste Rodin?
    • Probably just nearsighted. Scrotal asymmetry and Rodin's dyslexia 20 (I swear I'm not making this up) cites Rodin's placement of the left testicle lower than the right in his sculpture L'Age d'Airain as evidence of dyslexia, but this hero 21 went and checked the photographs on which the sculpture was based. According to him, the model just had an unusual pair of testicles.
  • Leonardo da Vinci?
    • Maybe! He was a poor student, a bad speller, and he occasionally wrote backwards in his journals 22. But the backwards writing was clearly a conscious choice which could have been an attempt at obfuscation or a practical measure to prevent smearing ink as his writing hand moved across the page 15. Some claims center on the fact that his eyes are misaligned in his self-portraits, but contrary to popular belief, this is not associated with dyslexia 23. Seems like shaky ground for a retroactive diagnosis, but I can't argue with, which definitively states that, "[h]is extraordinary art work and inventive genius are proof that he truly possessed the gift of dyslexia." 24
  • Lil' Pump?
    • Sure, you can have Lil' Pump. Any joke about this video would be in poor taste, so we're moving on to…

7 Conclusions

7.1 On Muhammad Ali's dyslexia

It is highly plausible (though still unproven) that Muhammad Ali was a slightly better boxer because of his dyslexia. The obvious next step here is a study in which Mike Tyson throws left hooks at a bunch of psychology undergrads, but I'm not optimistic that an Ethical Review Board will sign off.

Assuming the effect is real, dyslexia is still just one of countless, complicated, factors that led to Ali's becoming the heavyweight champion of the world (and probably not even a particularly significant one).

7.2 On dyslexia and general spatial reasoning ability

Despite the claims of pop-psychology articles across the internet, dyslexics score lower than average on conventional tests of visual-spatial ability.

However, the variance in their scores is higher. Also, they respond more quickly on some tests, and fMRI data suggests that their brains are working more efficiently.

I'm no psychologist, but I'm skeptical that conventional tests of visual-spatial ability measuring anything beyond the ability to sit quietly in a room and answer multiple-choice questions about abstract shapes. Given that the data is contradictory and maybe not even valid, I have no definitive conclusions here. I think it's likely that the "dyslexic advantage" is real but greatly exaggerated.

7.3 On the dyslexic overrepresentation in some fields

For some reason, dyslexics are more likely to be artists and mathematicians 4 , 2 than lawyers and doctors. On the surface, this seems to support the idea that dyslexia confers increased spatial ability, since art and math depend on spatial reasoning more than fields like law and medicine.

But Winner, von Károlyi, et. al. have a reasonable explanation for this: dyslexics choose fields where they have a relative advantage 4. Even if they have only average spatial ability, their spatial ability will still be greater than their verbal ability. Careers that involve intensive reading simply aren't an option for some people with dyslexia, so they default to the fields that remain open to them.

7.4 On Einstein, Edison, et. al.

Why is everyone so eager to claim Albert Einstein as dyslexic? I think it's because it makes for a better story. Consider the following two, possible worlds:

In the first, dyslexics have average intelligence but struggle with language. Super-geniuses like Einstein are anomalies that defy simple explanation and kind of freak us out.

In the second, dyslexia is a secret superpower; Einstein puts his Clark Kent glasses back on, and suddenly we recognize him as one of us! This story is more compelling for several reasons.

First, it has an underdog: everyone counts out the dyslexics, but in the end society gets its come-uppance.

Second, it has a whiff of conspiracy to it. Mankind has wallowed in ignorance for thousands of years, and now you, the person reading pop-psychology articles on the Internet, are one of the enlightened!

Third, it appeals to our sense of fairness. It's unfair that some people struggle to read while others are super-geniuses. But if the two groups are actually one and the same, then the playing field is level again.

Fourth, it offers a comforting explanation for something that makes us uncomfortable - namely, the fact that some people are way smarter than the rest of us. In this account, Einstein's freakish intelligence has a simple explanation: dyslexia. I'm not dyslexic, therefore I'm not a super-genius. So it's totally OK that I'm just sitting here in my underwear reading Wikipedia instead of theorizing about the nature of spacetime. And come to think of it, in a way I'm actually a little smarter than Einstein, because he had a reading disability and I don't!

In short, "Super-geniuses all share this one, weird, quirk!" is better clickbait, "Some people struggle while others succeed for myriad, complicated reasons that include pure luck."



People who go blind after birth but before adulthood process speech almost 3x faster than sighted people: 22 syllables per second, vs. 8 syllables per second. From Dietrich, et. al.


I don't really have lawyers.