Think of Edinburgh’s topography. For those readers unfortunate enough not to know the city, here’s a shot:

The old town (south) is full of circumlocutions and meandering wynds, while the new town’s wide, regular boulevards allow modern traffic to traverse the city efficiently (well they will once the trams are in place!).

Now think of a brain. Some are like the old town: interconnecting, flowing, with unexpected twists and turns. Young brains – and those of many learners with dyslexia – are plastic and flexible. They change much more easily than those of adults. But they are much less efficient in ‘grown up’ terms; they don’t work as efficiently as a brain that is more rigid.

We begin with the capacity to learn more effectively and more flexibly about our environment than any other species. This knowledge lets us imagine new environments, even radically new environments, and to act to change the existing ones. Then we can learn about the unexpected features of the new environment that we have created and so change the environment once again, and so on.

What neuroscientists call plasticity – the ability to change in the light of experience – is the key to human nature at every level from brains to minds to societies. Learning is a key part of the process, but the human capacity for change goes beyond just learning. Learning is about the way the world changes our mind, but our minds can also change the world. Developing a new theory about the world allows us to imagine other ways the world might be. Understanding other people and ourselves lets us imagine new ways of being human.

At the same time, to change our world, our selves and our society we have to think what we want to be like, as well as what we actually are like. To be imaginative, you want to consider as many possibilities as you can, even wild and unprecedented ones. In learning, you want to remain open to anything that might turn out to be a truth, thus avoiding any ‘hardening of the categories’.

The powers of imagination and learning during childhood provide us with the information that we adults use to plan and control our behaviour intelligently. In fact there is some evidence that high intelligence is correlated with later maturing and more plastic frontal lobes. Keeping your mind open longer may be part of what makes you smarter.

These different brains and minds mean that adults and children spend their days differently – we work, babies play. Play is the signature of childhood. It’s a living, visible manifestation of imagination and learning in action. There’s a kind of evolutionary division of labour between children and adults. Children and those lucky enough to retain the joy of playing into adulthood are the R&D department of the human species – the blue-sky guys, the brainstormers. Adults are production and marketing. Players make the discoveries; grown-ups implement them. They think up a million new ideas, mostly unworkable, and we take the 3 or 4 good ones and make them real.

Sounds like someone you know with dyslexia?

Dyslexia enables people to retain their imaginative powers, to think laterally, to envisage solutions to problems those with more rigid thought processes have found intractable. Learners with dyslexia may find circuitous routes to reach a destination but often they see wonderful sights along the way.

Perhaps it is time for the rest of us to slow down and appreciate the view!

Thanks to The Philosophical Baby Alison Gopnik for stimulating these thoughts.

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