A few months ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Pulitzer prize-winning author Philip Schultz and hearing (no, experiencing) him read from his book titled My Dyslexia. His words invite the listener and reader to do more than just follow the details of his having not learned to read until he was 11, and his discovery as an adult, that there was an explanation for his life-long struggle with reading.
In a voice that is both autobiographic and confessional, Mr. Schultz opens a window for us to understand his very personal journey. It’s hard not to appreciate and struggle along with him as he unpacks his feelings of bewilderment and sadness, of isolation and self-doubt, of perseverance and determination. There are just so many places in the narrative where you wish you could reach in and make it better:
“Learning that my problem with language processing wasn’t stupidity seemed to take most of my life … giving up this negative image of myself has been complicated and difficult.”
“My differentness felt freakish… if I had trouble learning… things everyone else seem to do easily, how could I trust my own thoughts or anything about myself?”
“It’s a tricky business, trying to understand the labyrinth and subterranean circuitry of one’s own mind, tricky but also necessary for someone for whom thought itself must often be translated, interpreted and censored before being transmitted.”
“The dyslexic’s mind is a muscle that remembers to protect itself against its memory of painful events. It shuts down when it becomes overloaded in order to spare itself further stress; this happens instantaneously, without warning.”
And what struck me most powerfully in his narrative was that the brain (mind) of this person – and others with LD – are in so many ways, and at no fault of their own, ill equipped for certain types of learning.
Shortly thereafter, I picked up another book, this one by a preeminent scientist at Tufts University, Maryanne Wolf, titled Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. It is not like any other book I recall reading in that it incorporated ideas from philosophy, linguistics, neuroscience, education and psychology, all converging to explain how and why dyslexia happens and, not surprisingly, how humans are not “wired” to be successful readers. What Dr. Wolf does throughout this book is to explain (in ways that we can all understand!) how the brain learns, and how it’s architecture needs to remain “open” throughout our lives, allowing for new experiences to inform how pathways and connections between cells and groups of cells are shaped and reshaped over and over again:
“…Our brain has at its disposal three ingenious design principles: the capacity to make new connections among older structures; the capacity to form areas of exquisitely precise specialization… and the ability to learn to recruit and connect information from these areas automatically.”
“… there are no genes specific only to reading, and if our brain has to connect older structures for vision and language to learn this new skill, every child in every generation has to do a lot of work.”
So the brain is constantly changing, and the person with dyslexia needs to figure out what it is that their brain can or cannot do with the steady flow of new information that is triggering real neurobiological changes all the time. Individuals with LD are, as Philip Schultz so eloquently stated, faced with the dilemma of wondering (and worrying) whether they can trust what their brains are doing to adjust to the changing demands of school, work and life.
And perhaps the most often overlooked aspect of the “reading brain” has to do with feelings and emotions. Both of these authors make specific mention of the powerful connection between emotions and cognition, between feelings of confidence and self-worth and the ability to sustain effort, be resilient, persevere and remain optimistic. For individuals with dyslexia, it’s a never-ending battle with a brain that, when it comes to reading, is not pre-wired for success.