Thoughts on “Reading in the Brain”

Were I a scientist, I would want to be doing work like this. Reading in the Brain: The Science and Evolution of a Human Invention by Stanislas Dehaene is one of the more noteworthy books about the neuroscience of reading to come out in the last few years.

Alison Gopnik’s review of Reading in the Brain: The Science and Evolution of a Human Invention goes into some detail about competing theories of brain structures, and the process of how we decode shapes to letters and in turn groups of letters into words, into meaning —

“Dehaene also makes an argument that goes beyond reading, an argument about human nature itself. In “Reading in the Brain,” he adopts the rhetoric of innateness, a complex of ideas developed by Noam Chomsky 50 years ago and popularized by evolutionary psychologists like Steven Pinker. He argues that reading is highly constrained by fixed, innate brain structures with only a little flexibility, just enough to allow this unprecedented skill to emerge at all.

But there are two very different kinds of innateness. Chomsky proposed that we are born with specific, genetically determined neural and cognitive structures, structures that go far beyond a few general learning mechanisms. This kind of innateness has become the established wisdom in cognitive science. The brain is not a blank slate.

… In the past few years, computer scientists have developed new machine learning techniques that allow computers to make genuinely new discoveries, and cognitive scientists have begun to discover that even young children’s minds learn in much the same way. At the same time, neuroscientists have discovered that the brain is much more plastic — more influenced by experience — than we used to think. The brain is highly structured, but it is also extremely flexible. It’s not a blank slate, but it isn’t written in stone either.”

For a better sense of what all of this means, you can visit this website which helpfully has all of the images and diagrams that appear in the book.

The Wall Street Journal: “Book Review: ‘Reading in the Brain’” also shares some of Dehaene’s insights on the process of reading in our brains. From an anthropological perspective, the shared qualities of alphabet structures is quite a topic to consider in how our brains may have evolved the reading process:

“Mr. Dehaene notes that, despite our sense that we are seeing all the text on a page as we read it, we are only really taking in about 12 letters at a time: the word we are focused on and a few of the letters next to it. Clever experiments revealed that, while the eyes are jumping from word to word, every other part of the text can be changed to nonsense and the reader won’t even notice. Mr. Dehaene also describes research on the similarities among the world’s alphabets and shows how writing systems themselves evolved to become easier to read — by converging on a small set of marks that are combined and recombined to make syllables and words. Across languages, the simpler the mark, the more often it is used. (T and L are more common than K and Y.) The marks are invariably presented with high contrast and pack a large amount of information into a small space.”

Scientific American has an excellent interview with Stanislas Dehaene (“Your Brain on Books”) which is worth a quick read (example: “Essentially, the brain did not evolve for culture, but culture evolved to be learnable by the brain”).

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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

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