Strengths in an ICT-led world


Leading edge US-base dyslexia researcher Tom West’s area of interest is the special talents of dyslexics. West believes that creative dyslexic individuals may be able to act as “engines for economic development” in an increasingly ICT-led world. He is affiliated with the Krasnov Institute for Advanced Study.

The Krasnov Institute, based at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, seeks to expand understanding of mind, brain and intelligence. It does this by conducting research at the intersection of the separate fields of cognitive psychology, neurobiology, and the computer-driven study of artificial intelligence and complex adaptive systems.

These separate disciplines increasingly overlap and promise progressively deeper insight into human thought processes. The Institute also examines how new insights from cognitive science research can be applied for human benefit in the areas of mental health, neurological disease, education, and computer design.

West, who was diagnosed as dyslexic at the age of 41, has been involved in developing computer graphic and visualization tools to assess the talents of dyslexics, and has also looked at patterns of talents seen over generations of families that show dyslexia mixed with high degrees of success in the arts and sciences.

His work also looks at how the total life experiences of successful dyslexics can help other dyslexics better use their own strengths. He is the author of two acclaimed books – In the Minds Eye, and Thinking Like Einstein. He notes that many dyslexics excel at high market value creative and entrepreneurial skills while they often fail in low market value school-based skills.

West says of his work: "It is time to learn from the distinctive strengths of dyslexics, rather than just focusing on their weaknesses and failures. We want to understand the talents of successful dyslexics and study how these talents are important for education and work, especially in our world of radical economic and technological change.”

He argues that with the rapid spread of less costly but powerful computers, humanity is now at the beginning of a major transition, moving from an old world based mainly on words and numbers to a new world where high-level work in all fields will eventually involve insights based on the display and manipulation of complex information using moving computer images. Graphical computer technologies now permit a return to our visual roots with a new balance between the hemispheres and their respective ways of thinking – presenting new opportunities for problem solving and big-picture thinking.

Tom West believes it is also important to note relevant trends in other fields. For example, there is a growing awareness in business and economic development literature of the high value of the innovative and entrepreneurial skills that many dyslexics exhibit. (See, for example, Richard Florida, The Rise of the Creative Class – insights from city planning and Daniel H. Pink, A Whole New Mind – familiar left-right hemisphere literature repackaged by a Wired magazine editor into a business-oriented self-help book that seems nonetheless to be having substantial impact.)

He says employers need to recruit creative workers who understand non-conventional areas of technology and talent and use them in their own work every day. Such employees may be engineers, designers, film makers, architects, scientists, computer graphic artists and specialists in scientific information visualization – in essence those who process and communicate information visually and graphically (using the most advanced computer technologies) rather than traditionally with words and numbers.

An example of recent developments in this direction is a study conducted (with National Science Foundation support) by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. As noted on their website:

"Could people with dyslexia be predisposed to science? The Laboratory for Visual Learning [at the Center for Astrophysics] is investigating a hypothesis that people with dyslexia, because of differences in neurology, may be predisposed to certain forms of visual processing that are useful in science. We are currently carrying out research to test this hypothesis, specifically looking at how dyslexia affects abilities of astronomers to analyze image-processed data." (See

In terms of education, West says that most efforts at educational reform just make life even more difficult for dyslexics – completely ignoring areas of strength while they hammer at areas of weakness, and that many who are creating the new technologies and products around the world are also the ones who are often suffering the most in current conventional educational systems. He notes that that this kind of brain – seemingly so magnificently ill-adapted to conventional education – can be a powerful engine of insight and innovation, raising some individuals rapidly to the top, pushing forward way beyond the many who are conventionally successful students but find it hard to conceive of anything really new or really important.

He also notes that highly successful dyslexics nearly always say that their accomplishments and special ways of seeing come directly from their dyslexia – not in spite of their dyslexia, as is sometimes believed. Tom West notes that areas of weakness with dyslexia are well understood. But when looking at high success in entrepreneurial business, artistic creation, technological design or scientific discovery, we need to focus on what it is that that the dyslexic brain is doing much better than those around them.

One thing that seems clear is that it is quite different from reading books, listening to lectures and memorizing long lists of names and facts. He postulates it has something to do with having a global view, seeing the big picture, having strikingly unusual insights, being able to build complex mental models, being able to look over the horizon to see things that others do not see, observing patterns in nature and markets that others do not see or cannot see.

Prior to writing In the Mind’s Eye, Tom West worked with engineering and consulting organizations where he managed a large international research and training program for USAID in Egypt, helped to redesign a national computer information system and integrated strategic planning for several federal government agencies with periodic travel to the Middle East and the Far East. He is based in Washington, DC.


In the Mind’s Eye examines the role of visual-spatial strengths and verbal weaknesses in the lives of ten dyslexic historical figures, including Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill, General George Patton and William Butler Yeats. The book was the winner of the American Library Association’s “outstanding academic book” (1997) and “best of the best” (1998) awards. A new edition of In the Mind’s Eye is due out in August 2009.

He has also the author of Thinking Like Einstein, which investigates the new worlds of visual thinking, insight, and creativity made possible by computer graphics and information visualization technologies. In this book, West profiles several highly creative visual thinkers, such as James Clerk Maxwell, Nikola Tesla, and Richard Feynman, pointing out that there is a long history of using visualization rather than words or numbers to solve problems.

West is also working on a third book, dealing with visual thinking, high creativity and dyslexia in several scientists and scientific families. One such family includes, over five generations, many dyslexics and winners of four Nobel Prizes (Sir J.J. Thomson (discoverer of the electron), Sir Lawrence Bragg (with his father, developed x-ray crystallography).

The new book will also feature profiles of dyslexic scientists such as the late William J. Dreyer, a Caltech professor who used his highly visual imagination to see things in molecular biology and immunology well before others – and in so doing helped to start the biotech revolution, developing one new theory 12 years ahead of others in the field, creating new sets of data by inventing his own new machines (first automated protein sequencer, 1977) and starting seven new biotech companies.

Another profile in the new book will focus on John R. (Jack) Horner who flunked out of the University of Montana seven times but is now known as one of the three most important paleontologists in the world, and has advised Stephen Spielberg on the three Jurassic Park films.

Speaking engagements

Tom West has consulted, organized conferences and given presentations on computer visualization of information, scientific creativity and learning differences for:

  • US National Library of Medicine in Bethesda

  • Confederation of British Industry in London

  • SRI International in San Francisco

  • 50 Max Planck Institutes in Göttingen, Germany

  • Netherlands Design Institute in Amsterdam

  • Educational Testing Service in Princeton

  • Aspen Institute in Colorado

  • Green College at Oxford University,

  • The Learning and Behavior Charitable Trust of New Zealand in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch (NB: 2006)

  • Royal College of Art in London

  • Glasgow School of Art in Scotland

  • SPELD in Perth, Western Australia

  • The National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, DC

  • International Symposium on Dyslexia in the Chinese Language organized by the Society of Child Neurology and Developmental Pediatrics in Hong Kong.

In June 2006, West was invited to travel to the UK to be the main speaker at the “Diversity Day” conference for the code-making and code-breaking descendants of Bletchley Park (World War II code breakers). This was the first ever diversity day for the employees of Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), near Cheltenham, England. Among the many brilliant mathematicians, engineers, linguists, analysts, scientists and technologists employed at GCHQ, there are a number of individuals with dyslexia, ADHD, dyspraxia or Asperger syndrome.

For more information visit Tom West’s blog – In the Mind’s Eye: Dyslexic Renaissance.

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