Thursday, October 27, 2005

Mirror Reversals, Mental Rotation, and Ambigrams

When children are first learning how to write their names, some parents are shocked to see their children writing a perfect version of their name, only in mirror reflection. This may seem mind-boggling, but in order to perceive and file visual information from different perspectives, the brain seems to keep a mirror reflection of what it sees.

Mirror reversals are commonly seen in young children, but they tend to correct by the ages of 7 or 8 years. They may persist in children or adults with dyslexia, though, resulting in frustratingly 'immature'-appearing work written by hand.

The figure below shows the 'mirror' pathway when normal test subjects were told to imagine letters or numbers presented in mirror reflection.

If this is your plight, you should also be aware that that mirror reversals can also accompany advanced capacity for spatial rotation. You may be quicker to visualize spatially rotated objects. The link below is to a research study that found that dyslexic subjects were quicker at processing feasibility of impossible illusions. This might be why gifted dyslexics can be found in many fields like CAD, engineering, architecture, and spatial mathematics. For beautiful rotational word plays, games, and lesson plans check out Scott Kim's website.

Mirror Reversals
Dyslexia and Visual-Spatial Ability
Scott Kim, Puzzle Master
Impossible Illusions


  1. I had a look at the Dyslexia and Viso-spatial abilities study and I have a different take on its meaning. I've posted an analysis of it on Myomancy.

  2. Hi Chris. Let's talk about it more. We'll also go to your blog and talk about it there as well.

    Do we think there may be a gift associated with dyslexia? Yes, we do. But you're right, the research paper linked above is not going to be strong enough to prove it. In fact if you look at the data, although the dyslexic group was slightly less accurate, although that finding was not statistically significant.

    You're right to think about where the students came from, and in general, it would have been better to see more matched controls that could account for these slight differences. The various causes and types of dyslexia could also confound the study, and the number of test subjects was still relatively small. Still, it was interesting that there were disproportionately high numbers of dyslexics in the top scorers on the test. They seem to be onto something, but they haven't completely sorted it out.

    We do think it is important to talk about the gifts because at present the balance is so uneven, that most children will be embarrassed about it, or think that it somehow reflects on their general intelligence.

    When it comes to thinking about what's really a gift, and what's a liability, it does depend on what's required at the time. Because of our proximity to high tech businesses, we've had the good fortune to have many remarkable gifted dyslexics in our clinic population...and the strengths that we've noted have to do more with top-down processing - which requires symbolic or imagistic thinking, conceptual categorization, and contextual filling-in. Do you know about this study?

    It found that mathematicaly gifted adolescents had less hemispheric dominance than average or college student groups. I think there are advantages to having less hemispheric dominance, but disadvantages too, depending on what the task is at hand.

  3. Is dyslexia a gift? My argument against the idea comes in two parts.

    On a macro economic level we have to look at what dyslexics' supposed gift adds to society. We know dyslexia occurs in about 5% of the population yet there is good evidence that 40%+ of the prison population is dyslexic. That 5% of the classroom ends up being 40%+ of the prison population suggests that dyslexia is not much of a gift for those people. Not to mention the drain on society through direct and indirect costs. Of those dyslexics who avoid prison how many end up in jobs that reflect their overall abilities and how many end in low paid jobs because they can't read? To society and the individual, dyslexia costs. The vast majority of dyslexics suffer rather than benefit from the condition.

    On an individual and neurological level I think the apparent 'gift' of visual-spatial ability or any other skill being caused by dyslexia is down to coping strategies. If I suffered an accident, broke my back and was confided to a wheel chair, my arms would get stronger through the effort of moving the wheelchair. Does this mean that strong arms is a gift of being disabled? Of course not but this is the mental model I use when considering dyslexia and its gifts.

    Consider a normal brain of someone who just happens to have good visual-spatial ability equal to that given by dyslexia. How did they get this ability? The individual, their parents and environment have all helped to train it. I accept that some people might be born with a head-start or a talent for visual-spatial skills but I argue that VS skills must be predominantly learnt because even the worst ten-year has better VS skills than the most talented new born baby. So if normal people learn VS skills why do we assume that dyslexics have them as a gift? Because research suggests that more dyslexics have, on average, a better VS ability. I believe this occurs (if it occurs and I'm not convinced by the data) its because dyslexics have had to train up their VS skills in order to cope with being dyslexic rather than dyslexia causing the improved VS ability.

    One of key problems with being dyslexic (here I'm drawing on personal experience rather than research) is a lack of feedback. Subtleties like body language or tone of voice are lost. Consequently dyslexics have a lot less information available to them than a normal child. In order to cope with what is going on around them, the dyslexic must pull lots of information together. If a child is laughing at you, a non-dyslexic might recognize the body language as either a threatening, mocking laugh or someone genuinely enjoying your company. A dyslexic child would not have that information. They need to think about what was just said and what has happened in previous situations like this. They need to look at the big picture to get as many clues possible. Successful dyslexics train themselves in visual, big-picture thinking as a survival trait. Some dyslexics find other coping strategies such as developing powerful memories. Others do not find a coping strategy and these are the people who end up dropping out of school.

  4. This is an issue that can trigger strong feelings. We speak from our own clinical and personal experience, and admit that our referral population has a high representation of successful dyslexic families who may have had their greatest trouble with reading and or written expression in the early school years. We nevertheless feel it's important to emphasize the strengths of dyslexic individuals, because more often than not, outsiders can make dyslexic individuals feel like they're not intelligent. We agree that the nature - nurture questions are difficult to answer in the presence of dyslexia and giftedness, though.

    We would like talk about the prison statistic which is quoted widely. We suspect that the prison population would include many with significant social and economic deprivation, some brain injury, and retardation - and that the high incidence of reading problems there might reflect a more generalized language learning disability than familial dyslexia. Hopefully more research will be done into this area.

    Also to give a balanced view of dyslexia incidence, you should also be aware of the higher incidence of dyslexia among entrepreneurs here and self-made millionaires (here). Our interest is in discouraging parents or teachers from even subconsciously writing off these children. Research has shown that underestimation of general cognitive ability can have a powerful effect on eventual achievement.

    On a personal note too (this is Fernette talking now), based on firsthand experience, I do feel dyslexia has associated gifts. Brock has some dyslexia in his family line, and although dyslexia-related mistakes do happen when we are working side-by-side on a problem, I have also been able to observe firsthand the advantages that I feel some of the perceptual differences have - whether it's flexibly taking different perspective or visualizing space in a more 3D way.

    One visual example of this different perspective can be see at the Art Dyslexia Trust's archive here. Check out the dyslexic designers' rendering of the equation: 12 + 12 = 24.