Full transcript of advocate and educator Dean Bragonier’s TEDx Talk: The True Gifts of a Dyslexic Mind @TEDxMarthasVineyard conference. This event occurred on August 31, 2015.
Listen to the MP3 audio: The True Gifts of a Dyslexic Mind by Dean Bragonier @ TEDxMarthasVineyard
Dean Bragonier – Advocate and educator
Here’s the moment of truth: Anybody in this audience have dyslexia? Show of hands. Thank you.
Thank you. Thank you. Some more. Thank you. That’s almost a fair assessment.
We’ve got about 20% of the general population has dyslexia. That’s 1 in 5 people. And I think that dyslexia is most commonly understood as this reading issue, you know, we have a tendency of flipping our b’s and d’s and our q’s and g’s, and that’s, you know, I think that’s a fair assessment, at least in the symptomatic department.
But I want to take this opportunity to speak a little bit more in depth about the neuroscience of dyslexia.
So, we have this outer layer of our brain called the cortex. And we all know that we have — or maybe we don’t know – but we have these little things called minicolumns, okay? And these minicolumns serve as the telephone poles, if you will.
What strings together on these minicolumns are axons. Okay? Now, people with autism, for example, have axons that are extremely closely located in proximity to each other, and as a result, their axon lengths are very, very finite and short, and as a result they are able to do these incredibly detailed, highly specific patterns and behaviors and skills, right?
Well, dyslexics are on the other side of that spectrum; we have our minicolumns that are spaced very, very far apart. As a result, our axon lengths are significantly longer. And this actually lends to some significant cognitive advantages.
We have an ability to look at a situation and identify seemingly disparate pieces of information and blend those into a narrative, or a tapestry, that makes sense to us that most people can’t see.
So this translates into an exceptional level of success in four major vocational paths. That’s entrepreneurship, engineering, architecture and the arts. I just want you to please remember that, as it comes up later in this discussion.
Dyslexia comes with a cost though, okay? We have an incredibly difficult time doing what’s called phonetic decoding. Okay, that’s the most complex word I’m going to use, and I hope you’re impressed by it.
Phonetic decoding is essentially our ability to identify these squiggly lines, translate those lines into a sound in our mind and then string those sounds together to compose a word. For dyslexics, that takes five time more energy than a normal brain.
So, to give you a little bit of a historical context on dyslexia, I’ll go back and start off with the first nine-tenths of human existence. Societies were largely based on apprentice models, right? From hunter and gatherers down to the trades in more recent times, people learned by observing and then doing kinesthetic learning.
Now, this happens to be the wheelhouse for dyslexics; this is our prime opportunity to learn. Then there was this little twist in history, okay? It was called the Industrial Revolution.
And what happened during the Industrial Revolution is the society said, “Okay, we’ve got this new form of economy. What we need to do is educate the masses to become effective worker bees in these factories.” Now, this dovetailed historically with the importation of the printing press from Europe.
And so everyone was incredibly excited that they had this newfound technology that would enable us to embed knowledge into a format that could then be scaled and distributed on a national level.
Now, this served society tremendously well, except for the fact that at that very moment, you essentially locked the door on 20% of the population, right? Those of us with dyslexia.
So, what does the dyslexic experience feel like? Of those that raised their hands, we certainly know, but I’ll illuminate it for the rest of you.
I ask you to take a stroll back to those sepia-toned images of your 7, 8, 9-year-old years, where school was sort of this montage of recess and nap time and snack time; the world was a really good place, right?
And then, all of a sudden, at one point, they kind of tightened the screws a bit, and said, “We’re going to introduce our first benchmark of intelligence.” They didn’t put it that way; they said, “We’re going to learn how to read.”
And all of a sudden, for those of us with dyslexia, our world changed overnight. We realized, looking at our peers, that what everybody else was doing effortlessly, we had an incredible time trying to do. And we actually not only failed on day one, but we failed on day two and three and four, and so on, and the years started to compound where we were exposed to this level of failure that became so commonplace that we started to wear this shroud of shame.
There’s a psychologist named Dr Gershen Kaufman. Dr Kaufman studies shame. Dr Kaufman says that people who cannot read or who have difficulty learning how to read feel the same level of shame as people who have engaged in incest.
So you can imagine what it’s like – again, you see that in yourself, you know, many, many years ago – and you realize that after a while, you’re burdened with this shame, and then you get this reinforcement, negative, albeit, where you’re walking down the hall, and you hear things like, “That guy Dean Kid’s so dumb he can’t even read.” Right?
Or the best one is the teacher-parent conference where they’re like, “You know, Dean’s a smart kid, but if he just tried harder, I think he’s a little bit lazy.” Okay?
And so what happens is that you formulate this malignant self-esteem; you start to believe – no matter how strong your personal resolve may be – you start to believe what everyone is telling you. So it should come as no surprise: you transition into middle school, then high school, thinking, “Okay, who am I going to be?” We all remember that.
Horrible experience, right? Trying to define who we were going to be in our cult, our pack, our community. And we knew that we’re not going to be the smart kid. I mean, albeit the wrong assessment, but we knew we weren’t going to be the smart kid.
Maybe we were the gifted jock, but chances are we looked at the kids, after school, smoking reefer on the bleachers, or the kids throwing rocks through glass or somebody maybe even getting involved in a little bit of gang involvement. And we’d think to ourselves they’ve got a very low barrier to entry; I can be that guy; that’s very easy.
And so we naturally gravitate towards those identities. And statistically, it’s a very sad story. You know, 35% of all dyslexics drop out of high school, and 50% of all adolescents involved in drug and alcohol rehabilitation have dyslexia. Another whammy is 60% – in fact, the professionals say it’s more like 70%, but I think that’s outlandish – the people that work in the juvenile detention system say that 70% of all juvenile delinquents have dyslexia.
So, that is a very strong and depressing narrative, obviously. But we all have heard – I heard an earlier speaker talk about Einstein – we’ve all heard how Einstein was dyslexic; JFK, Pablo Picasso, Leonardo DaVinci, Richard Branson, Charles Schwab, I mean the laundry list is endless, right?
In fact, dyslexics, when they are fully empowered and they recognize that innate intelligence, represent 35% of all entrepreneurs. They represent 40% of all self-made millionaires. And you know those rocket scientists down at NASA? One out of two of them is dyslexic.