Developmental dyslexia: disorder or specialization in exploration?

Helen Taylor, Martin David Vestergaard

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

16 Citations (Scopus)
71 Downloads (Pure)


We raise the new possibility that people diagnosed with developmental dyslexia (DD) are specialized in explorative cognitive search, and rather than having a neurocognitive disorder, play an essential role in human adaptation. Most DD research has studied educational difficulties, with theories framing differences in neurocognitive processes as deficits. However, people with DD are also often proposed to have certain strengths – particularly in realms like discovery, invention, and creativity – that deficit-centered theories cannot explain. We investigate whether these strengths reflect an underlying explorative specialization. We re-examine experimental studies in psychology and neuroscience using the framework of cognitive search, whereby many psychological processes involve a trade-off between exploration and exploitation. We report evidence of an explorative bias in DD-associated cognitive strategies. High DD prevalence and an attendant explorative bias across multiple areas of cognition suggest the existence of explorative specialization. An evolutionary perspective explains the combination of findings and challenges the view that individuals with DD have a disorder. In cooperating groups, individual specialization is favored when features that confer fitness benefits are functionally incompatible. Evidence for search specialization suggests that, as with some other social organisms, humans mediate the exploration–exploitation trade-off by specializing in complementary strategies. The existence of a system of collective cognitive search that emerges through collaboration would help to explain our species’ exceptional adaptiveness. It also aligns with evidence for substantial variability during our evolutionary history and the notion that humans are adapted not to a particular habitat but to variability itself. Specialization creates interdependence and necessitates balancing complementary strategies. Reframing DD therefore underscores the urgency of changing certain cultural practices to ensure we do not inhibit adaptation. Key improvements would remove cultural barriers to exploration and nurture explorative learning in education, academia, and the workplace, as well as emphasize collaboration over competition. Specialization in complementary search abilities represents a meta-adaptation; through collaboration, this likely enables human groups (as a species and as cultural systems) to successfully adapt. Cultural change to support this system of collaborative search may therefore be essential in confronting the challenges humanity now faces.
Original languageEnglish
Article number889245
Number of pages19
JournalFrontiers in Psychology: Cognitive Science
Early online date24 Jun 2022
Publication statusPublished - 24 Jun 2022


  • psychology
  • developmental dyslexia (DD)
  • cognitive search
  • division and specialization
  • cultural evolution
  • adaptation
  • exploration – exploitation
  • complex adaptive system
  • individual learning


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