Dyslexia and Brain Scans: A Critique of Experimental Design

A critical study of linguistic consciousness


By Jack Ferguson


Accepted at the Alexander R. Luria and Psychology in the 21st Century, the 2nd International Conference in Commemoration of the Centenary of Alexander R. Luria, Moscow, September 2002.


MRI technology continues to make an impact on educational theory. This can be seen in brain scan studies designed by specialists for dyslexics:


Patients with phonological dyslexia… appear to have lost the ability to sound out words based on the rules of the language. These patients may be able to read even highly irregular words like “pint” correctly, but have real difficulty pronouncing nonsense strings like “caik” even when they could correctly pronounce the corresponding word “cake.” Patients with phonological dyslexia have relatively intact connections between the visual and semantic systems, but not between the visual and pronunciation systems.

(Posner & Raichle:1999)


This study deserves careful study because society often uncritically takes this technology at face value. My analysis of these studies and experiments is as follows: the hypothesis is that phonological dyslexia is caused by dysfunctional neurological components. No variables are stated. The experimental design reveal the following elements: the ai-diagraph, when applied to the model (C) + VV+C results in failure to recognize and articulate long-a due to neurological problems in dyslexics. On the other hand, the in-diagraph (pint, hind, find) v (tint, flint) when applied to the same model is recognized by the patients as long-i though it is considered “irregular” by the designers;  when “a” is inserted into the global long vowel formula C+V+C+e, the long-a is also recognized. The components are as follows:


Model   Successful   Unsuccessful


                                         C+VV+C       C+in+C       C+ai+C

                                         C+V+C+e      C+a+C+e   


Phonological Shifting

Each shift in associated instructions is a crucial neurological event because it alters or terminates the communication cycle.


Partial Dyslexics

The author’s confirmation that the rules/structures C+a+V+e and C+in+C were successfully processed cannot be ignored. The patients cannot be partial dyslexics unless there are functioning C+V+C+e and C+in+C, but dysfunctional C+ai+C pathways. The dichotomy must be explained or the hypothesis revised to make sense of this. The lack of control or removal of confusing orthographic patterns/signals embedded in the ai-matrix invalidates this model unless there is another explanation.


Epistemological Considerations

Experience reveals that shifts in decoding or encoding are accomplished by indexing associated ai-neurological instructions derived from graphemic/phonemic patterns. An implausible explanation for the existence these devices is based on a priori components where the necessity of education is a set of platonic triggers of animnesis  (or genetic code where the starting point of consciousness is identity or difference without apperception; the missing neurological component contain the problematic ai-genetic code.) A plausible explanation is that graphemes are imperfect inventions and arbitrary tools of information and communication and are relearned by each generation. The coding instructions are human inventions loaded with orthographic inconsistencies.


Environmental Variables

The assumption that the ai-instruction is automatic must be validated to support the findings. Why is the long-a instruction the “correct” selection from the ai-matrix? Given the problematic ai-matrix, perhaps the scans show that the patients are stuck in a phonic choice, uncertain of the most popular orthographic selection; perhaps an associated negative self-image is blocking the entire operation. Furthermore, the designers have not proven that the global rules such as C+V+C+e in processing long vowels “correspond” to C+VV+C structures.


Sociological Variables

The dynamics of the “patient,” dyslexic,” and “doctor” relationship are problematic given that labels could impart suggestions, scripts and expectations as to the outcome of the experiments. Social identity cards and their associate behavior should be neutralized in the design so as to impart expectations.


Orthographic Variables

The experimental design assumes the existence of an established, strong association between the long-a and ai in the patient’s schemata including established class comparisons, and that this schema has been relevant and coherent at the dyslexic’s semantic level, but somehow cannot be processed at the phonological level because of brain damage. These associations are strong and society often considers them “obvious.” Are the images those of associated low self-esteem locking up performance, or are they pictures of indecision in selecting the normative usage of the graphemic instrument? These are variables that must be eliminated to validate the case. Moreover, questions concerning these variables have been around since the 1930’s:


If maldevelopment  is the causal factor, then the disability for understanding certain kinds of printed or written symbols should be no greater than for other kinds. Specific disabilities of this kind are encountered, and since most of these congenital cases can be taught to read, we must view with a certain amount of skepticism the maldevelopment theory. How may of these cases are due to emotional blocking, improper motivation, inadequate techniques in instruction, and suggestion is difficult to estimate…Fernald attributes many of the cases of word blindness to their techniques used in the educational system in teaching reading…these methods, although they have been used successfully with the majority of children, make it impossible for certain children to lean because they interfere with the function of certain abilities with these children possess…If the case is one in which emotional maladjustment towards the reading problem has arisen because of some other failure in adjustment, improvement in reading ability will take place with better social adjustment (Dorcus, Shafer, Wilson:1939)


Educational Variables

The pattern and history of each “patient’s” education is a formidable variable. Teacher methods and theories, e.g., behaviorism, combined with inappropriate insights into orthographic patterns could account for avoidable dyslexic symptoms.


I find no compelling basis for anagrams in any aspect of orthographic communication much less a test of neurological damage:


For example: Mis ryd in a cayk with eighd  ov oughle ouf eightry eighggs that eigh broc on the chear. (My ride in a cake with aid of all the airy eggs that I broke on the chair.) (island) (hay) (neighbor) (bear) (ought) (double) (height) (local) (oven)


This example takes the caik design to task in order to demonstrate it communicative irrelevance and degraded linguistic functionality. Does it make the reader dyslexic? Furthermore, exchanging “nonsense strings” in order to trigger targeted semantic codes associated with other signs illustrate the dysfunctional nature of polymorphic orthographic tools in general and a serious obstacle in such studies to grasp the problem. If the neurological instructions cannot be triggered or quickly inferred directly from the orthographic architecture, or derived from other decoding devices, resources or environmental clues, we are no closer to determining if the problem originates in the brain, instrument or didactics. Furthermore, the caik design is a narrow window that misses the function of language. As stated by Vygotsky:


A sign is always originally a means used for social purposes, a means of influencing others, and only later becomes a means of influencing oneself…the function is its social function, and if we want to trace how it functions in the behavior of an individual, we must consider how it is used to function in social behavior. (Wertsch: 1985)


If the caik-model is outside the need for authentic communication, it is commonly used in determining dyslexics. This issue becomes compelling when institutions refer to brain scan technology to make an ethical case that one brain is structurally different from another more “normal” brain without accounting for the variables.



The existence of phonological dyslexia as stipulated by Drs. Posner and Raichle has not been proven given the problems with their experimental design. Indeed, the lack of control of variables such as emotional blocks and phonic choices is critical in evaluating these experiments. On the other hand, orthographic confusion is present and sufficient to explain their findings.


Part II

In their article, Functional Disruption in the Organization of the Brain for Reading in Dyslexia, authors Shaywitz, et. al., subscribe to the concept that phonologic awareness is a missing component in their subjects due to a neurological defect. No variables are stated. It follows that, if phonological awareness is present, the neurological defect must therefore be absent. The author’s claim when awareness is absent, it results in difficulty in mapping the alphabetic characters onto the spoken word, i.e., reading. Their experimental design, although not given in detail is based on an inability to read phonologically legal nonsense words. They continue:


Speech enables its users to create an indefinitely large number of words by combining and permuting a small number of phonologic segments, the consonants and vowels that serve as the natural constituents of the biologic specialization for language. An alphabetic transcription brings this same ability to readers but only as they connect its arbitrary characters (letters) to the phonologic segments they represents. Making that connection requires an awareness that all words, in fact, can be decomposed into phonologic segments. Thus, it is this awareness that allows the reader to connect the letter strings (the orthography) to the corresponding units of speech (phonologic constituents) that they represent. As numerous studies have shown, however, such awareness is largely missing in dyslexic children and adults (1-4). Nor surprisingly, then, perhaps the most sensitive measure of the reading problem in dyslexia is an inability to read phonologically legal nonsense words (5-7). (Shaywitz :1998)


Phonological Awareness

On the one hand, the authors hold that phonological awareness is “lacking” in their subjects; on the other hand, they assume it is an active but limited when they state “…DYS readers fail to systematically increase activation as the difficulty of mapping print onto phonologic structures increases.” If it does not exist, it cannot somehow be present even in degree. Phonological awareness is a part of consciousness, and phonological consciousness can be blocked from information by malfunctioning pathways or previously mentioned problems. Mapping difficulties assume the presence of phonological unawareness, but it is not clear if they are learned malfunctions such as “word blindness.” Phonological awareness obviously distinguishes linguistic patterns, and if this awareness exists, the ability to distinguish between them is present although the information can be blurred due to missing or undeveloped orthographic, emotional or learning strategies. In short, phonological awareness is not a proper foundation unless it is rigorously defined, logically connected, and all variables controlled. As in any form of mediated awareness of significant signals, this awareness is cultivated. Moreover, the researchers could simply be scanning and measuring past didactic levels of phonological awareness, i.e., associated neural connections that were ineffectively indexed due to confusing instructions, cumulated negatively conditioned responses, past dysfunctional learning environments, zones of poverty, layers of educational experiences to name a few variables beyond the control or scope of the experiment and not adequately addressed by it. Moreover, they could be studies in cultural bias towards a group.



Analysis shows that associations are not actually within graphic symbols, nor do symbols represent anything without human intentions and associations. They are psychophysical phenomenon. The term represents indicates the intention of those who have built communal associations between arbitrary graphic and phonic patterns, and is a complex object. The graphic symbol “cup” in and by itself does not “represent” my cup, or does “my cup” represent the thing in my hand, and so on. In itself, the term, symbol, picture, etc. stand empty of associations. It is simply a graphic or phonemic pattern that may trigger associations or not. Symbols are cultural sets of empiric associations to visual and auditory patterns that may trigger eidetic images of objects or not. For example, the ancient pattern of a chessboard does not reveal the multiplicity of neural patterns, strategies, rules, etc., that have been generated and associated with it by each actor, nor are chess rules and strategies self-evident to a novice because the board does not represent anything more than a checkered pattern. Another example, say an iconic cigarette may represent pleasure, cancer, profit, status, or whatever, but in itself it is a set of sensory patterns representing nothing. Another example, say “fire” and an associated “flame” image associated with it are socially reified graphic and phonic patterns signaling associated somatic instructions in the decoder’s neural network, themselves associated with limbic patterns of danger. As mentioned, the orthographic system can obstruct the signal thereby confusing or delaying registration of the stipulated neural code that enables survival, or the requisite associations have been incompletely formed shortening survival. Another example will follow out a more detailed pattern analysis:



Obviously, the long-i is not contained in the term. The long-i is an acquired set of neural instruction downloaded to the tongue, fingers, legs, etc. Below this are sets of subpatterns:


1st order pattern of contrasting sensory marks and their micro associations detected by  consciousness.

2nd contiguous patterns associated to previous somatic signals

3rd order, emergent patter: a, l, e, s, i (straight and curved lines, dots and associated positions, e.g., the dot must be on top of i to differentiate it from other patterns)

4th order, phonic patterns of letters differentiated through conditioning such as

*isale, *liase, *elsia (reversed order but not a mirror image.) (not recognized because nonstandard pattern, no associations triggered, normative and erroneous where emotional trauma often first occurs.

5th order patterns of semiotics such as definitions, maps, etc., macro associations rules and behaviors.

6th order, patterns of classifications such as linguistics, phonics, etc.

7th order, patterns of direct experience, sensory confirmation of all patterns.


We generate emotional, cognitive, perceptual, somatic, and sensory patterns that often go unnoticed. We cannot detect what we don’t generate. It follows that we can detect what we generate, namely, patterns utilizing phonic or graphic devices delimited by our physiological architecture and structured by sensory, perceptual and cognitive validation. We learn how to detect the patterns by accident or through our culture. The pattern detection process obviously operates on a subconscious level wherein the overall controlling pattern goes undetected. Everyone is often surprised by their behavior as when they act inappropriately when such behavior is later clarified to them (e.g., are you jealous of her?) The pattern generator and pattern detector are thus separate, and both innate and triggered by the sensory manifold. We can also reverse the process, disassociating ineffective patterns. Once the decoder detects patterns within the phonological device, the symbol seems to animate instructions to the neural network. There can be blank spots because the decoder has does not have the necessary experience to form the required associations. Until we identify universal neural patterns from which individually indexed association are triggered, it remains impossible to make “judgments” about these devices without each individual having assembled associations as to their utility, construction, relationships, etc. Forgetting or ignoring this can be taken as an epistemological a naiveté that takes us back to Socrates who defended …anamnesis, that knowledge is acquired, not through the senses or as information conveyed from mind to another by teaching, but by recollection in this life of realities and truths seen and known by the soul before its incarnation. (Conrad:1957)



The term mapping is also problematic unless the authors are referring to the construction by association of neural connections as the graphic/phonic signals continue to combine into complex symbolic systems of communication by means of conditioning. We communicate with flags, hands gestures, lights, beeps, etc., and orthographic symbols are just another device. It is crucial that communication be effective and efficient to encode or decode critical information, rules, facts, etc. Due to historic accident or design, English orthographic architecture inconsistently corresponds to our neural decoding architecture and these devices rarely adhere to any detectible pattern. Children must multiplex these capricious signs into normative signals. Multiplexing is accomplished by indexing diverse associations built over time and often against direct sensory evidence as in a haphazard orthography.  Associations are established in natural experience with positive and negative rewards for culturally select behaviors, or mediate and highly organized forms of perception, cognition, memory attention, etc., generally prefixed with meta found in extraordinary environments. Experience can be highly or poorly organized depending on the individuals past experiences or genetic lottery. Unlike phonemic awareness, critical phonemic awareness is the guided association of signals to signs to each other and to other semantic frameworks, symbols, events, things, processes, clues, strategies, contexts; critical phonemic awareness is a highly mediated multiplexing activity involving the control of the dysfunctional orthographic schemata commonly know as English spelling. This is an environment that requires select skills, strategies, and resources to control it.



Metaphors such as mapping, decomposition, transcoding, represents, etc., do not lend credence to this experiment because they are not rigorously defined. Moreover, their definition of dyslexia is neurological and epistemological and assumed by the authors and the audience. The experiments picture and measure some neurological events, but exactly what those event are associated with has not been established other than the degraded communication termed legal nonsense terms. The fact that these events forms patterns and establish a dichotomy between readers is significant, but the cause cannot be established without control of all variables.


Level IV

The researchers at Level IV set the following guidelines:


The fourth task, nonword rhyme (NWR; e.g., Do [leat] and [jete] rhyme?), requires analysis of more complex structures…Not surprisingly, then, perhaps the most sensitive measure of the reading problem in dyslexia is an inability to read phonologically legal nonsense words (5-7)…. (Shaywitz :1998)


Multiple phonological referents for the phonic value of ea in the C+ea-matrix+C formula (rear, death, sea, tear, etc.), and an assumption long-e is the correct or only choice is a fundamental error of assumption and an uncontrolled variable. This will not be reanalyzed. The example of rhyming leat and jete is based on a method of learning new terms within their associated morphologies. To learn new terms, we must have formed associated pathways or cognitive paradigms based on our phonological architecture. We are not born with these signs in our heads, so they must come from our environment. This critical insight is constantly ignored by these in vacuo experiments. (Wertsch:1991) Furthermore, reading generates meaning, communication, and dialogic interactions while legal nonsense is more about assumptions rather than words.


 Deep Learning

Deep learning is the indexing of associated signals and their rules of segmentation and recombination with other signals or signs into arrays of useful symbols for meaningful communication. Deep learning is clearly seen in the learning of a nonnative language, but it often does not occur because (1) the positively structured experience has not provided the lessons; (2) unhealthy or negatively conditioning blocking formations; (3) the brain cannot process the lessons because it is damaged, (4) disorganized environment.



There is no reason to assume #3 without eliminating 1 & 2 by controlling all variables. Because our education spans decades often consisting of multiple variables such as teaching styles, philosophies, dogmas, ideologies, programs, politically correct agendas, and so on, I doubt this can be accomplished. This experiment is not as simplistic as testing neural circuit boards. If there are innate hardwired neural circuits that process select sensory patterns, termed learning styles, authors such as Howard Gardner have addressed this phenomenon.



Some variables not considered by the researchers are as follows:

·        Broken communication

a)      frustration in trying to complete a broken communication system

b)     degrading the process of associating signs into meaningless nonsense

c)      disengagement from nonsense

·        Orthographic variables

a)      false signals

b)     misleading signals

c)      phonic proairesis: rear, death, sea, tear, etc.

d)     poorly learned vowel formulas

·        Psychosomatic associations

a)      emotional blocks

b)     suggestions as to failure

c)      test anxiety

d)     short attention spans

e)      general health issues

·        Missing, chaotic or misleading educational experiences

·        Brain damage or any number of environmental or genetic offenses

·        Alternative learning styles

Level IV’s design did not eliminate these variables.


Jete & Leat

Jete, leat, rete, ceat zete, xeat, sete, qeat, kete, deat, sete, veat, vlete quete, sleat, shete, phete psyeat, tyete, zeat, slete, weat, sete, nete, tyeat…and so on.


Language associations are psychological connections to graphic symbols, not within the graphemes, but within the brains of the decoders. In this context, the brain is an electric organ that associates signs for symbolic communication by generating and differentiating patterns into effective instruments. The repetitive application of valid transformational rules into nonsense anagrams violates neurological functions because resources are wasted on intensive processing without communication. We do not nor would we even repeat these terms in a communicative format, and it is clearly a violation of semiotics to articulate, learn, produce or generate gibberish or meaningless symbols. Anyone can prove this by simply playing this nonsense to any small group in a natural setting and monitoring reactions. Communication is the association of signs to symbols and symbols into meanings for the exchange of information and group adhesion. The fact that some subjects process nonsense says more about their staying power or attention span than others, and scans of the normal subjects are possibly those of meta attentive skill. This model does not parallel experience and should be reconsidered. Also, certain clusters are disallowed in English, and these rules form another subset of associated patterns and their illegal forms. We are adept at recognizing illegal clusters, rejecting them; for example, the anagram jete is a French morphology.



What does the term Legal mean? Psychofugal insertions of diagraphs into orthographic formulas for long vowel articulations for the purpose of constructing gibberish and its subsequent psychopedal decoding of nonsensical resemblances of morphologies seems to constitute a crucial segment of linguistic development for the designers. However, disturbed linguistic behaviors often involve an absence of meaning constitutes neurological problems such as pseudolalia or the production of meaningless sounds found in defective speech pathologies, babies and mentally disturbed individuals. (Hartman:1947) The definition of legal should clearly differentiate itself from these disorders and demonstrate its critical role in orthographic communication, one that dyslexics cannot pass beyond because of brain damage. To actively and intensively construct useless tools does not measure a disability to construct useful ones. The only legal term is one that communicates or triggers successful semantic association in the sender and the receiver, i.e., they communicate. If their design propelled rather than repelled the communicative process, it would be informative.


Level V

The final task, semantic category (SC) judgment (e.g., Are [corn] and [rice] in the same category?), also makes substantial demands on transcoding from print to phonology (19-19) but requires in addition that the printed stimulus items activate particular word representations in the reader’s lexicon to arrive at the word’s meaning. (Shaywitz :1998)


This may seem direct, but as was made clear, the structure is problematic in that associations are not in the symbols, but in the brains of the decoders. In order to decode a symbol involves an automatic categorical or hierarchical indexing process of images or analogies unless the underlying neurological patterns were first detected. Our association to symbols and meanings has a unique psychophysical history in each of us. To hold rice and corn are in so botanical, nutritional, agricultural or economic category makes an assumption as to the category and past learning experiences in assembling and connecting them into linguistic instruments for controlling one’s environment. The richness of experience is a function of one’s wealth, curiosity, values, etc. For example, impoverished students may view the differences in corn and rice according to their packaging. Categories are symbolic containers, and their associations first pass through concrete containers; then they are generalized into sets. Taxonomies must be empirically verified with concepts from diverse disciplines such as anatomy, genetics, etc., Categories are the apex of cultural inventions and require positive, stimulating heuristic environment to bring about their successful application. On the other hand, an instructor who suggested with kinetic signs and gestures, social stigmas associated to lack of intelligence in these subjects negatively conditioned their formations by blocking the process with emotional associations to failure, (limbic dysfunction.) Students are classified just as rice and corn into various containers because of their learning styles.


Categorical Relativity

There are no a priori (unlearned) categorical structures of concepts, else things would never be misclassified, and we would never experience variations. Categorization according to Sakharov must be studied in the context of the subject’s needs and values:


Concepts cannot be regarded as closed, self-sufficient structures, and they cannot be abstracted from the function they serve in the sequence of mental process…In thought and action, the development of a concept plays the role of an instrument for achieving certain ends. This functional aspect must be taken into account in an investigatory procedure; a concept must be studied in its functional context. (Sakharov:1996)


To function successfully within one’s environment is the test of communication. Level’s IV and V did not meet that threshold, and are fragmentary. The establishment of categorical thought is a met cognitive tool for controlling one’s world. There is an a priori potential in undamaged individuals for classifying experience, but it is not accessible or developed without cultural interchange.



The foundation of these studies rests on epistemic assumptions, undefined terms, and uncontrolled variables, and without rigorous, systematic definitions of critical terms and control of variables, these studies are essentially arguments based on popular opinion. Other conclusions are therefore possible, and there is no compelling reason to view the images as demonstrating a cause of dyslexia.








Dorcus, Roy, and Shaffer, G. *1939) Textbook of Abnormal Psychology, Baltimore: The William & Wilkins Co. pp 113-114.


Gardner, H. (1983) Frames of Mind: the theory of Multiple Intelligences, NY: Basic Books.


Hartman, P. L., (1947) The New Dictionary of Psychology, The Philosophical Library.


Posner, M. and Raichle, M. (1999) Images of Mind, Scientific American Library.


Sakharov, Leonid, (1996) Methods for Investigating Concepts, pp. 71-98, The Vygotsky Reader, Rene van der Veer and jaan Valsiner, Edg., Backwell. 


Shaywitz, et., al. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA Vol. 95, pp. 2636-2641, March 1998, Neurobiology, Functional disruption in the organization of the brain for reading in dyslexia.


Vygotsky, Lev, (1992) Thought and Language, MIT Press.


.Wertsch, J. (1991) Voices of the Mind: A Sociocultural Approach to Mediated Action, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.


Wertsch, James, (1985) Vygotsky and the Social Formation of Mind, Harvard University Press.