Posted by: Alexandre Borovik | August 20, 2008

Dyslexia, dyscalculia, tone deafness

I discovered two posts on Butterworth’ discalculia theories (related to my previous post):

at the Lexify yourself… or a friend blog. Dyslexia and dyscalculia are issues sufficiently serious for making an honest discussion impossible. For me, an explanation lies in Stanislas Dehaene’s a quip (in his book The Number Sense):

We have to do mathematics using the brain which evolved 30 000 years ago for survival in the African savanna.

There were no books in savanna, and arithmetic texbooks were even more conspicuously absent. There were no grand pianos in savanna, too. All that stuff was invented and developed later, in a tortuous trial-and-error process spreading over millennia. The results are not perfect, which is best witnessed by the insane English orthography, much contributing to the epidemics of dyslexia in this country. Well, orthography is like weather: you are free to criticise it, but cannot change.

Things become more complicated when social institutions –such as education system — are concerned; there is a strong resistance of vested interests — and politicians’ unwillingness to invest extra money — to any suggestion of a systemic flaw.

Therefore I am pleased to find an ally in the famous pianist Heinrich Neuhaus. In his book The Art of PIano Playing he very explicitly describes mainstream music education as a combination of two processes:

  • development of musical skills in a student;
  • accumulation of neurological damage.

People who develop math phobia, and, I conjecture, a significant proportion of people who are diagnosed with dyslexia and dyscalculia, are no more than victims of neurological damage they suffered at early stages of their education.

I have a moral right to say this in a pretty brutal form because I am myself a fellow sufferer – I am, in effect, tone deaf. I have reasons to believe that my sense of musical pitch was destroyed during my primary school years by a perpetually drunk music teacher with his out-of-tune accordion. (I am Russian, and the system of mass music education in Russia was very patchy — I happened to grow up in a musically deprived area).

The fundamental flaw of all educational discourse is the undisputed and unmentionable assumption that education is always good, and that the influence of education is always positive. Any proposed reform is assessed by looking only at what it promises to improve; there are no compulsory checks for side effects and contraindications. In pharmacology, the same attitude to policy making would constitute a criminal offence. (This is why I reiterate that I refrain from any recommendations on educational policy.)


  1. Given the firm neurological evidence that childhood education in music, in mathematics, in language, and in pretty-much everything else, even in sports, leads to changes taking place in the actual physical structure of the brain, it strikes me as silly beyond words to imagine that our brains evolved to cope with conditions in the African savannah! Our brains changed — in our very own lifetimes! — to cope with our own individual experiences. What happened to our distant ancestors is of no relevance at all.

  2. I find that an astonishing statement, Peter. Certainly our brains evolved to cope with the situation we were in at the time – they may, of course, still be evolving now, over generations (though I see no particular reason to believe that evolution by natural selection is a continuing mechanism under the peculiar conditions of civilisation). Our distant ancestors are ENTIRELY relevant.

    The fact that the structure of the brain alter with experiences is no more “evolution” than the fact that the muscular structures of the arm alter with exercise.

  3. I wish we understood the impact of the obtuse orthography of the English language on dyslexia (Learning Disability in Basic Reading). This is why we need more research on dyslexia in students whose native languages are orthographically transparent. Spanish is the only such language I’m aware of.

  4. Adrienne: this link
    leads to my old post about my own experience of learning to read in Russian. I am afraid it would be impossible (for me) to do the same if my native tongue was English.

    I myself found the papers of Elena Grigorenko on dyslexia very illuminating. One quote from her old survey Developmental Dyslexia: An Update on Genes, Brains, and Environments, Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry Volume 42 Issue 1, Pages 91 – 125:

    The basic dyslexic impairment is caused by a unified
    mechanism, valid and functioning in all languages in
    which individuals with dyslexia have been identified.
    However, the manifestation of this unified mechanism is
    language- and culture-dependent. Dyslexia is only noted
    by educators, psychologists, and biologists and then
    investigated if these three conditions are met: (1) the
    phonological structure of the language must be sufficiently
    challenging to impose a serious obstacle for dyslexics,
    (2) the frequency of normal reading in the society
    must be high enough to make failures noticeable, and (3)
    there must be a societal demand for mastery of this skill
    and an adequate number of professionals to support this

  5. Another paper by EL Grigorenko, If John were Ivan: Would he fail in reading, in Handbook of orthography and literacy, (by R. Malatesha Joshi, P. G. Aaron). Routledge, 2005, pp. 303-320.
    ISBN 0805846522, 9780805846522 (the whole text of the paper is available in Googlebook)

    She emphasises that Russian is harder for writing (orthographically) than for reading (phonologically).

  6. Do you have any research data on neurological problems associated with tone deafness?

  7. There is a huge literature on “acquired amusia” and “congenital amusia”, just look at Google Scholar. A typical quote:

    Recent evidence suggests that congenital amusia is a real disorder (Ayotte, Peretz, & Hyde, 2002; Peretz et al., 2002). According to a basic neuropsychological principle, a slight but congenital neural deviation may produce selective learning deficits. Thus, in a previous study (Ayotte et al., 2002), we searched for individuals with lifelong musical difficulties in order to study them in detail. From a large pool of 45 volunteers with confirmed musical disorders on objective testing, we selected the most clear-cut 11 cases and were able to document, across multiple tests, that their deficit in discriminating and memorizing music was a genuine learning disability. Their music disorder was remarkably selective. Their language skills, including recognition of song lyrics and of speech intonation, were intact. Moreover, their processing of rhythm was much less affected than their processing of pitch.

    “acquired amusia” is a result of clearly localised brain trauma — brain trauma patients are indespensible for neurological research. What strikes me that the origins of “congenital amusia” appear to be never questioned. The same applies, by the way, to the literature on other cognitive disorders, like alexia/agraphia (result of clearly diagnosed brain trauma or tumor) and dyslexia (it is are assumed to be an inborn condition).

    On the other hand, Neuhaus mentions, as a simple fact of life, young pianists who came from their local schools with glowing reputations of prodigies, but cannot continue at a conservatory level because their hands are in state of permanent spasm.

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