Dorothy van den Honert: Dyslexia and the science-school gap



Right in the middle of your two-sided brain is a bridge of tissue called the corpus callosum which is the only connection between them. The CC’s job is to send information back and forth so that each side knows what the other is doing. The hemispheres have different specialties, and the CC keeps them in touch with each other. It surely must be one of the busiest places on earth, with millions of tiny currents zipping back and forth every time you think a thought!

Occasionally somebody’s CC is slightly out of shape. When that happens, it causes certain messages that go through it to arrive late. This out-of-sync delivery to the language-handling area was first discovered back in the 1970s by a psychiatrist, Dr. William Condon, who began to do some high-speed photography of dyslectic kids. To his amazement, he found that they were out-of-sync with themselves right down the midline of the body. When they started to blink, one eyelid started down just a fraction of a second before the other one. When they started to smile, one corner of the mouth started up just a fraction of a second before the other one. When they reached for something, one hand started to move just a fraction of a second before the other. The slow side was always the same, and the delay was the same size for everything.

Since this peculiarity was only present in dyslectic kids, he concluded that their CC’s had to be out of shape somehow. I will always be impressed with the fact that today’s brain scans still show the same-sized time delay that Dr. Condon cleverly found in 1982 with nothing but a low-tech, high-speed camera!

Today’s technological age requires an education and good reading. But the dyslectic kids are stuck, even when they are soaked in phonics. But why? Nobody had a clue. Some of the wildest "treatments" appeared: jumping on trampolines, writing big letters in sand, even taking drugs like Ritalin to keep the little spit-ball throwers out of the teacher’s hair.

A number of excellent phonics programs appeared as well, but even those never got the dyslectic kids anywhere near up to grade level. Special education didn’t help in spite of all the money being spent on it because every kind of reading program, good or bad, made the same mistake. They all sent their phonics lessons through the poky corpus callosum! And they still do. And they still don’t cure dyslexia. And we still pay millions of dollars on special education programs that don’t work, robbing the country of a lot of talent it needs.


The other hero of this story is a neurologist named Dr. Michael Gazzaniga, who put it in plain English. What the language processing area needs is "One final cognitive path." Finding a way to deliver a reading lesson without going through the corpus callosum actually turned out to be both dirt cheap and easy! Imagine that! The trouble with the dyslexic kids was not the phonics program they were being given, it was the delivery system. It reminds me of using penicillin to cure pneumonia. Penicillin works just fine, but not if you rub it on your arm.

If there is way to reduce special education costs from today’s millions to a few thousands, you might think that the school personnel would jump at the chance. Why don’t they? Because there is an enormous information gap between teachers and neuroscientists. The last 10 years or so have already shown an enormous flood of articles in scientific journals that all say the same thing: in dyslexia you have a slightly shortened corpus callosum. Conversely, if you have a shortened CC, you will have dyslexia.

So why haven’t teachers jumped on the bandwagon, bypassed the CC and saved millions of dollars? To start with, they don’t even read scientific journals and they think that it is time scientists stopped showing off and wrote in language that the general public can understand. Of course it is not the job of a scientist to morph his findings into teaching techniques. Scientists wonder why teachers’ colleges don’t teach the construction of the brain, since it the job of a teacher to work with brains all day.

So the science-education gap remains and the taxpayers pay heavily. So does the country. We need all the inventors, engineers and scientists we can get. These are the fields that dyslectic kids often excel in, but their abilities are diluted by inadequate reading and spelling. And it is costing us millions of dollars. I like to think of the CC as not only the busiest place on earth but the most expensive, when I think of how much it costs us to go through it twice instead of once.

Dorothy van den Honert is an occasional Eagle contributor.


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