Saturday, 10 May 2014

Dyslexia and Creativity

Dyslexia and creativity is a contentious juxtaposition. Large numbers of dyslexics work in the creative industries. That isn’t disputed. But there is a stark difference of opinion about why. Do they work in creative roles because they are ‘disabled’ by the condition and thus can’t find any other jobs? Or does dyslexia cause them to be more creative?

Educational Psychologist Martin Turner is quoted as having said: “Dyslexics go into the visual arts like sheep head for a gap in the hedge. They aren't more creative, they are more stressed.”
But according to the Yale Centre for Dyslexia and Creativity: “Dyslexia is often spoken of as a hidden disability. What is not at all appreciated is that dyslexia can also be a hidden source of great abilities and frequently unrecognized powers.”

The question at the heart of the debate is this: is dyslexia a disability or a difference?
Having taught creative writing for many years I have worked with several students who believed they were not creative. And yet all of these self-identified ‘non-creatives’ came out with many creative story ideas (much to the amusement of the rest of the class). Whenever their creativity was pointed out to them, they said: “That’s not creative! I didn’t make it up. I just put together a couple of different things that really happened.”
To me, such juxtaposition is the essence of creativity. But to them – because they could understand where the ideas were coming from – they regarded the process as not creative.
Every new thought must have an origin. But some of us are less able to track back in our minds and understand the process of formation. Some processes happen under the spotlight of our conscious awareness. Others happen on the shadowy edge. And some happen beyond that in the deep dark of the unconscious mind.
Trains of ideas are sometimes divided into the sequential and the lateral. The sequential thought process goes in a straight line from A to B to C. Lateral thoughts seem to be sideways jumps with no obvious direct origin – though in reality there must be a connection of which we are unaware.
The degree to which we a person has lateral thoughts is sometimes used as a measure of their creativity. Lateral thoughts are the hallmark of the creative mind.
In the diagram below, the conscious thought connections are shown as arrows. The unconscious connections are shown as dotted lines.

Sequential and Lateral Thinking
The creative person seems to be having new ideas, apparently unconnected to the previous thought. This leads to a series of lateral jumps.
But in my opinion, people who claim to be uncreative also have these lateral jumps. The difference is, they are quickly aware that they have strayed from the direct line. Thus they make a conscious effort to pull themselves back. And they are able to do so because they hold the original line clearly in their working memory.
The people who we regard as creative may simply be the ones who are content to abandon the original train. Alternately, if they have poor working memory, they may try to jump back but discover that the original line of thought has already faded. Thus they may have no choice but to stick to the new line.

Working Memory Problems Interrupting Sequential Thought Trains
This could offer another explanation for the abundance of dyslexics in the creative industries. If poor working memory pushes people towards a more lateral style of thinking, then dyslexics, who typically have working memory problems, would appear to be naturally creative.

Seen in this way dyslexia and creativity might indeed be related.
Having said all the above, these thoughts have no stronger basis than my own observations of myself and my students. I would be very interested to hear other people's ideas on this question.

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