Reading in the Brain: The Science and Evolution of a Human Invention

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A renowned cognitive neuroscientist?s fascinating and highly informative account of how the brain acquires reading

How can a few black marks on a white page evoke an entire universe of sounds and meanings? In this riveting investigation, Stanislas Dehaene provides an accessible account of the brain circuitry of reading and explores what he calls the ?reading paradox?: Our cortex is the product of millions of years of evolution in a world without writing, so how did it adapt to recognize words? Reading in the Brain describes pioneering research on how we process language, revealing the hidden logic of spelling and the existence of powerful unconscious mechanisms for decoding words of any size, case, or font.

Dehaene?s research will fascinate not only readers interested in science and culture, but also educators concerned with debates on how we learn to read, and who wrestle with pathologies such as dyslexia. Like Steven Pinker, Dehaene argues that the mind is not a blank slate: Writing systems across all cultures rely on the same brain circuits, and reading is only possible insofar as it fits within the limits of a primate brain. Setting cutting-edge science in the context of cultural debate, Reading in the Brain is an unparalleled guide to a uniquely human ability.

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Editorial Reviews

Susan Okie
In this fascinating and scholarly book, French neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene explains what scientists now know about how the human brain performs the feat of reading, and what made this astonishing cultural invention biologically possible.
—The Washington Post
Alison Gopnik
[Stanislas Dehaene's] gifts, on display in Reading in the Brain, include an aptitude for complex experiments and an appetite for detail. This makes for excellent science but not, paradoxically, easy reading. Still, his book will repay careful study
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
The transparent and automatic feat of reading comprehension disguises an intricate biological effort, ably analyzed in this fascinating study. Drawing on scads of brain-imaging studies, case histories of stroke victims and ingenious cognitive psychology experiments, cognitive neuroscientist Dehaene (The Number Sense) diagrams the neural machinery that translates marks on paper into language, sound and meaning. It's a complex and surprising circuitry, both specific, in that it is housed in parts of the cortex that perform specific processing tasks, and puzzlingly abstract. (The brain, Dehaene hypothesizes, registers words mainly as collections of pairs of letters.) The author proposes reading as an example of “neuronal recycling”—the recruitment of previously evolved neural circuits to accomplish cultural innovations—and uses this idea to explore how ancient scribes shaped writing systems around the brain's potential and limitations. (He likewise attacks modern “whole language” reading pedagogy as an unnatural imposition on a brain attuned to learning by phonics.) This lively, lucid treatise proves once again that Dehaene is one of our most gifted expositors of science; he makes the workings of the mind less mysterious, but no less miraculous. Illus. (Nov. 16)
Library Journal
What's behind the invention of reading? Well, for starters, brain plasticity, the evolution of neurocircuits capable of processing visual with audio information, and the expansion of the prefrontal cortex leading to a behavior described as consciousness. The evolutionary infusion of these elements along with a novel hijacking from their evolved use intersects with human culture and incites a revolution: a culture with texts and brains that read those texts. All this drives neuroscientist Dehaene's (experimental cognitive psychology, Collège de France) thesis that the invention of reading has less to do with constructs, such as alphabets, words, and sentence structures, than the mechanics and limits of our brains. Simply, our brains didn't evolve to read, but they are flexible enough to learn new tricks. Dehaene supports his thesis with references to a smorgasbord of research, traversing such subjects as anatomy, reading mechanics, primate evolution, history of linguistics, literacy, dyslexia, and brain symmetry. VERDICT This will appeal to a broad audience interested in the cognitive sciences, reading, and linguistics. Some chapters will attract those who teach reading and languages and parents of children with reading disabilities.—Scott Vieira, Johnson Cty. Lib., KS\
Kirkus Reviews
A neuroscientist explains how the brain deals with reading. Dehaene (Experimental Cognitive Psychology/College de France; The Cognitive Neuroscience of Consciousness, 2002, etc.) begins by pointing out that the brain contains circuitry exquisitely attuned to reading. Humans began to read only 5,000 years ago, so eons of evolution could not have designed it. Since genes haven't evolved to enable us to read, writing systems have adapted to constraints in the human brain. The author describes experiments using dazzling, high-tech devices that image the brain while a subject reads. The retina sends everything we see to the extensive visual areas at the rear of the brain. An instant later, any written word, in any language, lights up a tiny area. Closer examination of this "letterbox area" reveals a smaller section sensitive only to simple lines and curves, an adjacent area that forms these into letters and another that recognizes words. This is the identical area and mechanism which animals use to recognize objects in their environment, so evolution has cleverly recycled existing brain circuits to handle reading. Dehaene stresses that these findings should help teach reading-phonics trump the whole word method, which has no basis in brain physiology-and treat dyslexia, which is rare in "transparent" languages (i.e., where one letter equals one sound) like Italian but epidemic in English where irregular spelling makes it much harder for the brain to decode words. Dense with ideas and experiments, but richly rewarding for readers willing to put in the effort.
The Barnes & Noble Review
Right now, your mind is performing an astonishing feat. Photons are bouncing off these black squiggles and lines -- the letters in this sentence -- and colliding with a thin wall of flesh at the back of your eyeball. The photons contain just enough energy to activate sensory neurons, each of which is responsible for a particular plot of visual space on the page. The end result is that, as you stare at the letters, they become more than mere marks on a page. You've begun to read.

Seeing the letters, of course, is just the start of the reading process. As the neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene reveals in his fascinating Reading in the Brain, the real wonder is what happens next. Although our eyes are focused on the letters, we quickly learn to ignore them. Instead, we perceive whole words, chunks of meaning. (The irregularities of English require such flexibility. As George Bernard Shaw once pointed out, the word "fish" could also be spelled ghoti, assuming that we used the gh from "enough," the o from "women," and the ti from "lotion.") In fact, once we become proficient at reading, the precise shape of the letters -- not to mention the arbitrariness of the spelling -- doesn't even matter, which is why we read word, WORD, and WoRd the same way.

In this clearly written summary of the field, Dehaene is primarily interested in two separate mysteries. The first mystery is how the individual human brain learns to read. What changes take place inside our head between kindergarten and second grade, when most of us start to take literacy for granted? How do we go from sounding out syllables, carefully parsing the phonetics of each word, to becoming fluent readers? And how does this incredibly complicated act become automatic, so that evn ths sntnce cn b quikly undrstd?

Dehaene begins by introducing the reader to the "letterbox area," a small bit of brain just behind the left ear. The crucial role of this cortical part was first revealed by Mr. C, a 19th-century neurological patient who, after a mild stroke, lost the ability to read. What made Mr. C's case so peculiar is that his vision was perfectly fine; he could make sense of objects and faces and even numbers. However, when he opened up a book or glanced at a newspaper, the letters on the page were utterly inscrutable, a mess of inchoate lines and curves. "He [Mr.C] thinks that he has lost his mind," his doctor dryly noted.

Subsequent studies of patients with pure alexia -- they can see everything but written language -- have located the specific contours of the letterbox area. Not surprisingly, it takes up a significant chunk of our visual cortex, as the invention of the alphabet seems to have usurped brain cells previously devoted to object recognition. (Dehaene refers to this process as "neuronal recycling.") He also speculates that, while "learning to read induces massive cognitive gains," it also comes with a hidden mental cost: because so much of our visual cortex is now devoted to literacy, we're less able to "read" the details of natural world.

But reading isn't just about seeing -- we still have to imbue those syllabic sounds with meaning. This is why, once the letterbox area deciphers the word -- this takes less than 150 milliseconds -- the information is immediately sent to other brain areas, which help us interpret the semantic content. Such a complex act requires a variety of brain areas scattered across both hemispheres, all of which must work together to make sense of a sentence. If any of these particular areas are damaged, people tend to lose specific elements of language, such as the ability to conjugate verbs or decipher metaphors.

One of the most intriguing findings of this new science of reading is that the literate brain actually has two distinct pathways for reading. One pathway is direct and efficient, and accounts for the vast majority of reading comprehension -- we see a group of letters, convert those letters into a word, and then directly grasp the word's meaning. However, there's also a second pathway, which we use whenever we encounter a rare and obscure word that isn't in our mental dictionary. As a result, we're forced to decipher the sound of the word before we can make a guess about its definition, which requires a second or two of conscious effort.

The second major mystery explored by Dehaene is how reading came to exist. It's a mystery that's only deepened by the recency of literacy: the first alphabets were invented less than 4,000 years ago, appearing near the Sinai Peninsula. (Egyptian hieroglyphic characters were used to represent a Semitic language.) This means that our brain wasn't "designed" for reading; we haven't had time to evolve a purpose-built set of circuits for letters and words. As Deheane eloquently notes, "Our cortex did not specifically evolve for writing. Rather, writing evolved to fit the cortex."

Deheane goes on to provide a wealth of evidence showing this cultural evolution in action, as written language tweaked itself until it became ubiquitous. In fact, even the shape of letters -- their odd graphic design -- has been molded by the habits and constraints of our perceptual system. For instance, the neuroscientists Marc Changizi and Shinsuke Shimojo have demonstrated that the vast majority of characters in 115 different writing systems are composed of three distinct strokes, which likely reflect the sensory limitations of cells in the retina. (As Dehaene observes, "The world over, characters appear to have evolved an almost optimal combination that can easily be grasped by a single neuron.") The moral is that our cultural forms reflect the biological form of the brain; the details of language are largely a biological accident.

Deheane ends the book with a discussion of education -- he's a supporter of phonics and ridicules the whole-language method, "which does not fit with the architecture of our visual brain." It's an interesting chapter, and it's always nice to see scientists grapple with the practical implications of their work, but the most compelling themes of the book remain rooted in basic science. As Deheane and others have demonstrated, the brain is much more than the seat of the soul -- it's also the fleshy source of our culture. By studying the wet stuff inside our head, we can begin to understand why this sentence has this structure, and why this letter, this one right here, has its shape. --Jonah Lehrer

Jonah Lehrer is a BN Review contributor.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780670021109
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 11/12/2009
  • Pages: 388
  • Product dimensions: 6.46 (w) x 9.36 (h) x 1.28 (d)

Meet the Author

STANISLAS DEHAENE is the director of the Cognitive Neuroimaging Unit in Saclay, France, and the professor of experimental cognitive psychology at the Collge de France. He is the author of Reading in the Brain.
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Table of Contents

Introduction The New Science of Reading 1

From Neurons to Education 2

Putting Neurons into Culture 3

The Mystery of the Reading Ape 4

Biological Unity and Cultural Diversity 6

A Reader's Guide 7

Ch. 1 How Do We Read? 11

The Eye: A Poor Scanner 13

The Search for Invariants 18

Amplifying Differences 21

Every Word Is a Tree 21

The Silent Voice 25

The Limits of Sound 29

The Hidden Logic of Our Spelling System 31

The Impossible Dream of Transparent Spelling 34

Two Routes for Reading 38

Mental Dictionaries 41

An Assembly of Daemons 42

Parallel Reading 46

Active Letter Decoding 47

Conspiracy and Competition in Reading 49

From Behavior to Brain Mechanisms 51

Ch. 2 The Brain's Letterbox 53

Joseph-Jules Dejerine's Discovery 54

Pure Alexia 57

A Lesion Revealed 58

Modern Lesion Analysis 61

Decoding the Reading Brain 65

Reading Is Universal 69

A Patchwork of Visual Preferences 72

How Fast Do We Read? 76

Electrodes in the Brain 78

Position Invariance 82

Subliminal Reading 88

How Culture Fashions the Brain 93

The Brains of Chinese Readers 97

Japanese and Its Two Scripts 98

Beyond the Letterbox 100

Sound and Meaning 104

From Spelling to Sound 107

Avenues to Meaning 109

A Cerebral Tidal Bore 113

Brain Limits on Cultural Diversity 116

Reading and Evolution 119

Ch. 3 The Reading Ape 121

Of Monkeys and Men 123

Neurons for Objects 125

Grandmother Cells 129

An Alphabet in the Monkey Brain 133

Proto-Letters 137

The Acquisition of Shape 141

The Learning Instinct 142

Neuronal Recycling 144

Birth of a Culture 148

Neurons for Reading 150

Bigram Neurons 153

A Neuronal Word Tree 158

How Many Neuronsfor Reading? 160

Simulating the Reader's Cortex 163

Cortical Biases That Shape Reading 164

Ch. 4 Inventing Reading 171

The Universal Features of Writing Systems 173

A Golden Section for Writing Systems 176

Artificial Signs and Natural Shapes 178

Prehistoric Precursors of Writing 180

From Counting to Writing 182

The Limits of Pictography 184

The Alphabet: A Great Leap Forward 190

Vowels: The Mothers of Reading 192

Ch. 5 Learning to Read 195

The Birth of a Future Reader 197

Three Steps for Reading 199

Becoming Aware of Phonemes 200

Graphemes and Phonemes: A Chicken and Egg Problem 202

The Orthographic Stage 204

The Brain of a Young Reader 204

The Illiterate Brain 208

What Does Reading Make Us Lose? 210

When Letters Have Colors 215

From Neuroscience to Education 218

Reading Wars 219

The Myth of Whole-Word Reading 222

The Inefficiency of the Whole-Language Approach 225

A Few Suggestions for Educators 228

Ch. 6 The Dyslexic Brain 235

What Is Dyslexia? 237

Phonological Trouble 238

The Biological Unity of Dyslexia 243

A Prime Suspect: The Left Temporal Lobe 246

Neuronal Migrations 249

The Dyslexic Mouse 251

The Genetics of Dyslexia 253

Overcoming Dyslexia 256

Ch. 7 Reading and Symmetry 263

When Animals Mix Left and Right 267

Evolution and Symmetry 269

Symmetry Perception and Brain Symmetry 270

Dr. Orton's Modern Followers 274

The Pros and Cons of a Symmetrical Brain 276

Single-Neuron Symmetry 277

Symmetrical Connections 280

Dormant Symmetry 284

Breaking the Mirror 288

Broken Symmetry ... or Hidden Symmetry? 289

Symmetry, Reading, and Neuronal Recycling 293

A Surprising Case of Mirror Dyslexia 294

Ch. 8 Toward a Culture of Neurons 301

Resolving the Reading Paradox 303

The Universality of Cultural Forms 304

Neuronal Recycling and Cerebral Modules 306

Toward a List of Cultural Invariants 308

Why Are We the Only Cultural Species? 312

Uniquely Human Plasticity? 314

Reading Other Minds 315

A Global Neuronal Workspace 317

Conclusion The Future of Reading 325

Acknowledgments 329

Notes 331

Bibliography 346

Index 376

Figure Credits 387

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  • Posted March 30, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Reading as a window into brain function

    I was fascinated by this book, since I am a reader, and a neurologist. The brain contains pathways that are specialized for recognizing letter shapes, and for associating the sounds of words with the letter shapes. This could not have evolved in the past 3000 years; it is scripts that have been adjusted to take advantage of the wiring patterns in the brains originally specialized for recognizing 3 dimensional objects. The author is a neuroscientist specializing in neuro-imaging and reading. He makes a very good case against whole language methods of teaching reading and in favor of phonics methods. He explores the field of dyslexia, and explores other areas of brain function that might have borrowed evolved neuronal pathways. There are practioners of neuroethics and neuroesthetics. His concept is that the human brain ultimately is better at reshaping itself in response to stimuli than that of other species.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 19, 2010

    This book is great/Neuropsych perspective excellent and...

    Perhaps the previous reviewer a) does not have properly taught/developed reading skills and strategies, or b) has reading comprehension deficits.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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