Reading in the Brain

Reading in the Brain (2009) by Stanislas Dehaene is a book that outlines how the brain translates the images of text into information for layman. It’s a really interesting read. In the book Dehaene looks at how we process the symbols looking for particular patterns of lines, how those patterns are then processed further and decoded. He looks at how MRIs have allowed scientists to look at the process in much greater detail in recent years. Dehaene looks are how languages’ similarities and their differences. He also looks at how we learn to read, what Neuroscience tells us about it and how what techniques can be used to teach children better. Dehaene also looks at what can go wrong and in particular dyslexia.

Dehaene is a highly accomplished scientist whose main work is in looking at numerical cognition. His book The Number Sense explored that work. He knows his subject matter in great depth and the writing in the book is clear and crisp.

The first three chapters look into the mechanics of reading. Dehaene looks at the way words are scanned, the lines of letters discerned, the words broken up into phonemes and then thrown into a parallel processor that routes them toward meaning. The way different languages stimulate the brain is looked at. Languages that are based on small alphabets and whose words translate directly into sounds such as Italian are different from those languages such as English and French where the letters do not cleanly correspond to sounds. Languages like Italian require less of the brain for reading and children learn to read those languages faster.

The fourth chapter looks at various writing systems and points out how our neurons determine how alphabets are. The number of strokes and their intersections and complexity against their frequency are common in many languages.

The fifth chapter looks at learning to read and looks at how ‘whole word reading’ does not work and has no basis in neuroscience. A clever experiment where an artificial alphabet was set up and one group was given whole word reading lessons against another that was given phonetic reading lessons is described. Dehaene also considers what the parts of the brain that are used in reading would be used for if not reading, he points out that tracking skills are one of the things that we lose when learning to read. Our perception of the trees, grass and whatnot in the natural world is probably worsened. However, by comparing the abilities of siblings and twins who differ in having learnt to read it is also shown that reading increases the ability to concentrate on other things.

Dyslexia gets a whole chapter that looks at what is going wrong in the brain with dyslexics. The problems with phonetic arrangement and the ways that with attention dyslexia can be overcome are described.

In the 7th Chapter Reading and Symmetry is described. We see and ignore vertical symmetry in many things, probably because much of the natural world is symmetric. However, in reading we have to unlearn this. Most children go through a phase of writing backwards or being able to write both backwards and forwards.

Dehaene concludes the book by looking at how our brains give us culture and where this takes us. He briefly talks about religion and other aspects that he says stem from our Neuronal makeup and that are similar to the way in which writing is shaped by the way our brain works.

The book is a great read, it’s dense and worth going back to. It is popular science at it’s best.



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