Can coercion cause dyslexia?

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Paul asked: Do you have hard data to back up your claims about dyslexia and toxic memories? Without hard data, I won't believe your theories.

This FAQ expands on the content of "I would never send my kids to school" by Piotr Wozniak (2017)


No hard data. The statement Coercion may contribute to reading difficulties is derived from the theory of learning.

Hard data and progress

A demand for hard data can be a powerful inhibitor of progress in science. We would all love to reduce science to perfect deductive reasoning and answer questions like we solve mathematical equations. However, where data is scarce, even the flimsiest anecdote can provide a seed of a new idea that will lead to a paradigm shift. This is why the modern take on peer review is a strong inhibitor of free thinking in science. Luckily, we have an increasing number of journals that focus on scientific hypotheses. Now we also have free speech on the net that no skeptical mind should fear. My favorite example speaks of the impact of excess learning on Alzheimer's (2002)(compare a decade later: 2012).

Coercion causes walking problems

You do not need much grounding in neurology to get a grasp on the problem of dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, stuttering, and other similar handicaps with neurological basis. All you need is a nice eye-opening metaphor. Pause and ponder: Can coercion cause problems with walking? Your first intuitive reply might be: no way!

Now consider that problems with reading can be as varied as problems with walking. As walking can be hindered by issues with knees or ankles, with tendons or ligaments, or with a shot of vodka, so can dyslexia be a result of a myriad of underlying causes. These can be genetic in nature, result of a trauma, or a result of bad learning that can be remedied or prevented with good learning. Coercion can cause problems with walking too. Anyone with a tiny bit of social anxiety may recall that the brightest walking skills can disintegrate when a human being needs to walk in front of a major auditorium under a pressure to perform to perfection. Even the best gymnast or acrobat may walk as if she was put in an invisible straight jacket.

Coercion in reading

Can coercion cause dyslexia? Certainly coercion should be avoided in remedial programs for dyslexics, or kids with developmental delays.

Coercion, by definition, violates the Fundamental law of learning

It is only natural for a parent of a kid with problems to conclude that if little drilling does not help, more drilling might. This intuition is so powerful that even learning "experts" will tell you to drill your skills to fluency even if the procedure is boring or unpleasant. Robert Bjork will tell you that fluency is a very bad measure of progress in learning. He is right. Patient and spaced approach can do wonders. If pondering the roots of dyslexia here helps relieve a coercive pressure on a single kid, it will be worth it.

Most dyslexics can recall stories from childhood when they were subject of ridicule. There is no way of knowing how those mental constraints affected their ability to overcome the problem, esp. that slow development is often a hallmark of extraordinary cognition. The same slow progress exposes kids to peer ridicule when expectation benchmarks are not hit.

By virtue of my job, I have seen, touched and documented thousands of cases of toxic memories developed in various contexts. Coercion is always a perfect breeding ground for toxic memories. Toxic memories can produce reading difficulty symptoms like those you observe in dyslexia. Every dyslexic knows that anxiety increases symptoms. For that, toxic memories associated with reading will worsen the symptoms as well. You can call it QED.

Coercion and dyscalculia

In a chapter on toxic memories, I provide an example in which a kid could not learn the sequence of months. This resulted in a great deal of stress, and pressure. Years later, she did not have problems with learning the same sequence of months in German. In the end, when confused about months in her native Polish, she would translate in her mind back and forth between Polish and German. This is a classic case of toxic memory that may masquerade as sort of "menstrual dyscalculia" (problem with counting months using their name labels). The funny name is mine. If there was a disease causing problems with month counting, that girl would get the diagnosis. In the end, all she needed to "recover" was time and space to do it on her own terms.

Language-dependent dyslexia

We know that English is a nightmare for dyslexics. English-speaking countries have much higher incidence of dyslexia. That should be reason enough to advocate for simplified spelling. When a case of a bilingual boy with monolingual dyslexia was brought to world's attention by a publication in Cognition in 1999, scientists rushed to interpret language difference between English and Japanese. There is no doubt that English spelling, as much as schooling benchmarks, lead to a sampling bias in the diagnosis of dyslexia. However, I would urge everyone to pay more attention to the family background of the boy in question. He was raised in an English speaking household. What is often seen as an advantage, highly literate parents, and mom who is a teacher, might have been the cause of extra pressure to perform early and perform well. The kid learned Japanese at school, which in this case might have been an advantage. Schools can press tough, but nothing is tougher than an ambitious parent with great and well-intended plans for kid's future. At the age of 16, the boy was an excellent reader in Japanese, and a case of severe dyslexia in English.

There are many possible ways in which the reported case could be explained, however, few people would suspect that Polish and German are much different with respect to month counting as described here.

ADHD and dyslexia

There is an association between ADHD and dyslexia. The suggested approach for ADHD kids is to remedy ADHD to relieve dyslexia. The democratic school approach differs: relief from the burden of schooling. With a proven record of success in managing ADHD kids, we can show that at least a subset of dyslexics can benefit from eliminating the coercion factor.

Employ an expert

Expert mind is precious. It can make fast evaluations and often be able to explain why. It is easy to explain on an example. An atheist or a believer can easily be rendered speechless when criticizing or arguing for the Bible. The question is: "Have you ever read it to criticize?" or "Do you remember anything of what you read?" or "Can you provide any evidence?". An atheist might have had a peek at the Bible in childhood, draw a conclusion, remember the conclusion and forget its roots. In the course of life, he will reinforce the conclusion by listening to trusted experts, say Richard D. By the age of 70, an "expert in Bible" will be totally unable to provide good evidence for or against his own Biblical claims. All that is left in his memory are generalizations with temporal and probabilistic judgements based on memory stability. The system for expert decision is based on the exact same neural mechanism as knowledge valuation network. The output of the system is simply a probabilistic evaluation of a hypothesis. Availability of new evidence will clash with confirmation bias, but can, in the end, overcome the most entrenches memories. A good expert, like Peter Gray, should be employed to speak about his intuitions.

Hard data is useful, but lack thereof does not render a good mind impotent