TCS Daily


Powers of Mind

By Kenneth Silber - September 13, 2005 12:00 AM

Paul Orfalea is a hyperactive dyslexic who barely reads or writes. As a student, he had dismal grades and was expelled several times, even spending some time in a program for the mentally retarded. He graduated eighth from the bottom of his high-school class of 1,200. He went on to become founder and chief executive of the copy-store chain Kinko's (named such for his curly hair), turning it into a $2-billion-a-year business.

Orfalea regards his dyslexia and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) as "learning opportunities" rather than disabilities. In his new book Copy This!: Lessons from a Hyperactive Dyslexic Who Turned a Bright Idea Into One of America's Best Companies (Workman Publishing), co-written by journalist Ann Marsh, he sketches how he parlayed such seeming weaknesses into entrepreneurial strengths.

For instance, rather than struggling with memos and emails, Orfalea encouraged voicemails that got quickly to the point. Since he disliked staying in one place, he made frequent visits to the far-flung stores. Since he was reliant on others, he had to be an astute judge of character and was focused on making Kinko's an attractive place to work. As his mind raced and jumped, he was open to new ideas for marketing and expansion.

A list of successful entrepreneurs with learning disabilities would include not just Orfalea but, among others, discount-brokerage pioneer Charles Schwab and Virgin Group creator Richard Branson (both of whom have dyslexia) and JetBlue founder David Neeleman (who has ADHD). More broadly, human cognitive capabilities and limitations seem to be thoroughly intermingled. Various people perform mental feats not only in spite of, but evidently because of, conditions normally seen as mentally or emotionally debilitating.

Temple Grandin is a notable example. An autistic woman who was recommended for institutionalization as a child, she went on to become an influential expert on animal behavior and inventor of humane systems for handling livestock. In her recent book Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior (Simon & Schuster), Grandin describes how her autistic tendency to focus on details gives her insight into how animals behave. She often notices things -- an odd shadow or subtle noise, say -- that upset animals but are overlooked by the people in charge of them.

In Grandin's view, autistics represent a "way station" of sorts between ordinary people and animals. Thus, autistics have shortfalls in the conceptual and verbal skills used by ordinary people, but have a somewhat animal-like sensitivity to their environments, whereas most people tend to filter out a lot of information. (In one study, people were asked to watch a videotape of a basketball game and count the number of passes. In so doing, many failed to notice when someone in a gorilla suit bounded onto the court.)

The juxtaposition of cognitive strengths and weaknesses is most extreme in the case of savants (or, in the parlance of an earlier era, "idiot savants"). These are people who have spectacular mental abilities in certain areas alongside substantial mental handicaps. Such abilities include prodigious memory and calculation skills. For instance, Kim Peek, a developmentally disabled man and inspiration for the film Rain Man, has difficulty with everyday tasks and abstractions but has memorized thousands of books and stupendous detail on world history, sporting events, musical compositions, highways, zip codes, TV stations and more, and can readily calculate a day of the week in a distant calendar year.

Some neuroscientists believe that ordinary people have latent savant-like capabilities. Allan Snyder, director of the Centre for the Mind at the Australian National University, has conducted experiments in which magnetic impulses are used to temporarily suppress the normal activity of the brain's fronto-temporal lobe. Such suppression seems to enable the emergence of hidden mental abilities, such as creative drawing skills in people who normally do not draw. Darold Treffert, a Wisconsin psychiatrist and specialist on savant syndrome, argues that even in everyday life people display some savant-like traits, as when suddenly something becomes comprehensible or a new ability clicks into place.

The strengths and weaknesses of the human brain appear to be tangled up with each other. Likely, there are tradeoffs involved, such that people who are highly developed in one area of mental ability will tend to be unexceptional or worse in particular other areas. This has various, indeed double-edged, implications for future efforts to boost human mental abilities through genetic interventions or other techniques. On one side, the human brain appears to contain hidden talents that could be tapped and expanded. On the other, efforts to do so must take into account possible effects across a range of mental faculties. Such tradeoffs may already be occurring, for example if treatments of ADHD diminish the propensities that made Orfalea and others into successful entrepreneurs.

Another implication is that there may be many people out there who have important abilities that have been overlooked because these are entwined with their more visible limitations. Grandin, in her book, notes that autistics have ably performed quality-control jobs that draw upon their detail orientation, and score exceptionally well on tests that involve finding a hidden shape inside a picture. She suggests that autistics be tried as airport screeners, to spot guns, bombs and the like amid the cluttered images of x-rayed luggage. Is anyone in the Department of Homeland Security working on this idea?

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