‘Do you know what the lady is going to do, Harry?’
‘Yes, mummy. She’s going to do the test to see if I’m sexy.’
‘Almost, sweetie. It’s to see if you are dyslexic.’
True story. Oh how we giggled. But it isn’t a laughing matter for the kids and adults affected.
Even in this world of alternative technologies, the written word is still central to how the world functions (or how the world ends given the current battle of juvenile tweets between power-crazed despots). It has certainly been at the core of everything I’ve done in my life. Uncountable exams and essays and academic papers, writing patient records or daily entries into my lab book, letters to and from home (and yes, I still write them from time to time), my fiction writing (without which I’m lost and incomplete). Books have accompanied me on my travels, filled hours of boredom, hours of discussion with friends, made me laugh, cry, think and seen me through the very worst times. I’m not one of these people who read a hundred books a year but last night, I devoured a book in a one-er. And it made me realise how lucky I am to be able to do it without a struggle. Unlike little Harry.
Dyslexia isn’t all doom and gloom. Many highly creative and successful people are dyslexic, and I know of plenty of high achievers in many fields including science, medicine and vet medicine who have overcome the disadvantages that it poses. And of course, there are many, many other reasons why someone might find reading and writing difficult, not least those associated with poor literacy levels and missed educational opportunities, both of which sadly often result from social disadvantage. Here, though, I want to concentrate here on dyslexia because I came across a video that really made me realise what it must be like to struggle get reading and writing down to the automatic act that it is for most of us.
First of all, imagine that you are a kid in a class and you have to write down what the teacher is saying (I live in France; from what I gather, ‘une dictée’ is pretty common here, even for primary kids). You have two things to do. One: listen. Two: write down what you hear. Simple(ish). Because for most of us, after a certain time, writing (like riding a bike, like driving a car) becomes automatic. We no longer have to concentrate on the fine details of the process except in unusual circumstances. So in this dictation, we actually only have one thing that we really have to focus on, and that is what the teacher is saying.
If you are dyslexic, though, it is far more complicated. Each time you write a letter, you have to concentrate fully on getting the correct form, in not mistaking your d’s for your b’s, for example, or remembering in which order the letters go to make the correct shape for the word. Worse, it may be difficult even to hold your pen or pencil correctly, or even sit up straight at the desk (dyslexia and dyspraxia are frequently associated). So in fact you may be trying to concentrate on three things at once: holding your pencil properly so your writing isn’t a scrawl, making sure you haven’t mixed up your letters, and listening to the teacher.
All of us have occasions when we are thinking about more than one thing at once. I know I secretly pride myself on the different paths my mind is taking at the same time (I tell myself that it isn’t simply confusion). So how many things can we concentrate on at once? How good are you at multi-braining? (Do you like my highly technical terms?) Let’s see how you get on in the test below.
It isn’t important if you don’t speak French. The speaker is about to play a video of two teams playing a strange game of basketball with several balls. It begins at 49 secs. Your task is to count the passes of the team in white. Just the team in white. Concentrate carefully. The most important thing for this part of the test is that you get the correct answer. (Stop the video after the first match; about 1min 14 secs).
So, how did you get on? Did you get the correct answer? Did you concentrate fully on what you were doing?
Now watch the video again but this time without counting the passes. What did you notice when you weren’t counting?
Did you spot him? The first time or the second time? Some of you might not have noticed the intruder the first time round because you were fully concentrating. The first time I watched it, I didn’t. To be honest, I didn’t believe the second video was the same as the first, so I ran version one again and sure enough there he was. For me, it is an astonishing demonstration of how the brain cannot fully concentrate on two things at the same time. It has all sorts of repercussions (imagine what we might miss as witnesses if we are under stress or concentrating on another task, for example) but also it made me realise what it must be like for someone like wee Harry of the Sexy Test as he learns to read and write. He is working twice as hard as the rest of us. So if his jumper is on back to front, or his writing is a bit messy, or he appears not to be listening to what you are saying, remember this: you might be the gorilla in his story.