Jun 29, 2022 I Paul Seaburn

The Unique Superpowers of Dyslexics and Turtles

Did you know that dyslexics and turtles have something in common? It’s true – according to two new and distinct studies, the order of reptiles known as Testudines and the people who suffer from the reading disorder dyslexia both have superpowers. Now, we’re not talking about Leonardo, Raphael, Donatello and Michelangelo … or are we? It turns out that the human Leonardo da Vinci was developmentally dyslexic and it may have given him a kind of superpower to exceed in other areas. Meanwhile, researchers have found the what gives non-ninja turtles the superpower to age extremely slowly, with some showing no signs of biological aging at all. Is this the plot of one superhero movie or two?

“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.”

It may not feel like a superpower, but it is.

A new study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology presents a new theory as to why Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso, Stephen Hawking, Richard Branson, Steve Jobs, Robin Williams, John F. Kennedy, Walt Disney, John Lennon and other dyslexics became geniuses and super-achiever in multiple and diverse fields despite their lifelong difficulties with reading, writing and spelling. Lead author Dr. Helen Taylor from the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at the University of Cambridge looked at the long list of genius and near-genius dyslexics – one in five people worldwide are dyslexic – and decided to focus on dyslexia as a tool rather than a deficit. What Taylor and co-author Martin David Vestergaard found is that people with dyslexia are specialized to explore the unknown.

“Striking the balance between exploring for new opportunities and exploiting the benefits of a particular choice is key to adaptation and survival and underpins many of the decisions we make in our daily lives,”

According to the study, life is a constant cognitive struggle between the exploration of new information and the exploitation of existing knowledge. Their example is the search for food. If you eat all of your food, you risk starvation, but if you go exploring for food, you waste energy unnecessarily. This difference is apparent in education, where the language skills of reading, writing and spelling are dependent on the exploitation of existing knowledge, while the arts and sciences are explorative subjects developing and using the skills of discovery, invention and creativity. The study looks at this from an evolutionary standpoint and shows that dyslexia could have helped our ancestors develop different, but complementary ways of thinking in order to adapt and succeed. In times of severe instability, this dyslexic power helped humans survive. In more relaxed times, this power turned dyslexics into geniuses and super-achievers in arts, sciences, entertainment, entrepreneurship, business, technology, philosophy, and much more. Based on these findings across multiple domains and at all levels of analysis − the researchers conclude that need to change our perspective of dyslexia as a neurological disorder and treat it as a potential superpower that one-fifth of the world’s population is not using to their fullest ability.

“Anecdotal evidence exists that some reptiles and amphibians age slowly and have long lifespans, but until now no one has actually studied this on a large scale across numerous species in the wild. If we can understand what allows some animals to age more slowly, we can better understand aging in humans, and we can also inform conservation strategies for reptiles and amphibians, many of which are threatened or endangered.”

David Miller, an associate professor of wildlife population ecology at Penn State, is the co-author of a new study published in the journal Science on why turtles, crocodilians and salamanders have very low aging rates and extended lifespans for their sizes. While it is commonly known that Galapagos giant turtles live well over 100 years, the reason for their longevity is not readily apparent. These long-lived animals are ectotherms – cold-blooded – so that seemed like a good place to start. Most people associate coldblooded with a low metabolism, warm-blooded endotherms with a high metabolism, and high metabolisms with fast aging – think short-lived, high metabolism mice.  

An international team of 114 scientists, led by Penn State and Northeastern Illinois University, participated in the study, which used data collected from 107 wild populations of 77 species of reptiles and amphibians worldwide. Animals were captured, tagged, released back into the wild and observed. The data for ectotherms and endotherms were then compared to test the long-held theories on how the regulation of body temperatures affects aging. The results were a surprise to the researchers, as explained by David Miller in the press release.

“We didn’t find support for the idea that a lower metabolic rate means ectotherms are aging slower. That relationship was only true for turtles, which suggests that turtles are unique among ectotherms.”

Turtles! What do these long-lived ‘super’ animals have that none of the other ectotherms don’t? A visible layer of protection – shells.

Yes!

“It could be that their altered morphology with hard shells provides protection and has contributed to the evolution of their life histories, including negligible aging – or lack of demographic aging – and exceptional longevity.”

Beth Reinke, first author and assistant professor of biology at Northeastern Illinois University, points out that hard shells are an “altered morphology” developed by evolution to protect the soft bodies of turtle, thus reducing their mortality rates. That means they live longer … but, as humans are also finding out, what turtle wants to live another 50 to 75 years in a weak, aged state? Thus the bodies of turtles evolved to age more slowly to take advantage of living to up to 190 years (the latest record for giant Galapagos turtles). That makes sense … but then the researchers had a second surprise.

“Interestingly, the team observed negligible aging in at least one species in each of the ectotherm groups, including in frogs and toads, crocodilians and turtles.”

It turns out other ectothermic animals with a means other than shells to protect them from being eaten also have long lives and don’t seem to age once they’re past their reproduction stage. Miller provides some numbers that don’t bode well for humans.  

“Negligible aging means that if an animal’s chance of dying in a year is 1% at age 10, if it is alive at 100 years, it’s chance of dying is still 1%. By contrast, in adult females in the U.S., the risk of dying in a year is about 1 in 2,500 at age 10 and 1 in 24 at age 80. When a species exhibits negligible senescence (deterioration), aging just doesn’t happen.”

“Negligible senescence” sounds less depressing that getting old, but it’s the same thing. The study concludes that these revelations on the true cause of negligible aging in turtles and a select group of other cold-blooded species came from studying populations rather than individuals. Thus, the study of – and prevention of – aging in humans requires a worldwide effort. 

And the study of -- and the nurturing of -- dyslexics will make our negligible sentience much better with more creative thinking and invention. 

In the meantime, your mom had the right idea – be like a turtle and wear a helmet. You might want to add a Kevlar vest too.

Paul Seaburn

Paul Seaburn is the editor at Mysterious Universe and its most prolific writer. He’s written for TV shows such as "The Tonight Show", "Politically Incorrect" and an award-winning children’s program. He's been published in “The New York Times" and "Huffington Post” and has co-authored numerous collections of trivia, puzzles and humor. His “What in the World!” podcast is a fun look at the latest weird and paranormal news, strange sports stories and odd trivia. Paul likes to add a bit of humor to each MU post he crafts. After all, the mysterious doesn't always have to be serious.

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