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Reading in the Brain: the New Science of How We Read

Reading in the Brain

Summary of the book Reading in the Brain. In his book Reading in the Brain, the neuroscientist and cognitive psychologist Stanislas Dehaene offers readers various discoveries and theories about the way in which our primate brain learns to read.

By Stanislas DEHAENE, 2007, 475 pages. (Original title: Les Neurones de la Lecture)

Note: This article is a guest chronicle written by Linette from the blog Lecture Active, in which she shares her knowledge of speed reading.

Chronicle and summary of “Reading in the Brain”:

INTRODUCTION: THE SCIENCE OF READING

The act of reading is an extremely complex one for our primate brain. All children face difficulties learning to read, and they overcome them as best they can.

The science of reading is still at an embryonic stage. What is certain is that the brain circuit for reading is always identical, no matter what the nationality of the person reading. Stanislas Dehaene shares his discoveries in this field with the reader. He also examines the consequences of how we function when it comes to learning to read.

CHAPTER 1: HOW DO WE READ?

Cognitive psychology has been breaking down the mechanisms that operate during the act of reading for the past thirty years.

It all starts with the eye, more specifically the fovea. This is a narrow area of the retina that recognises written signs. Its small size explains why we have to move our eyes constantly as we read. Our eye is an “imperfect sensor” that can only clearly distinguish the elements seen by the fovea. Everything around it remains blurred.

We look at a text in bursts, during which it can only capture a dozen or so letters.

The width of these bursts corresponds to what we call the “visual span”. While it is certainly possible to optimise it, it appears that a capacity of more than 400 to 500 words per minute is difficult. The speed at which we read is therefore limited by our physical capacity.

What is extraordinary in the act of reading is our ability to identify the characters, whatever their format, position or typology. The outline of the word is of no importance. We are capable of reading THree, or thRee or three…

Finally, we can legitimately speculate about the influence of sound in reading. When we read, we do not say the words out loud. Can we formally state that we can read without ever pronouncing the words?

There are in fact two paths to reading: the phonological path that involves using sound to read a word (generally used for new words) and the lexical path that recognises a chain of letters to get to the meaning of the word.

To become an expert reader, we have to combine both these paths to reading. They are inseparable when it comes to smooth reading.

Finally, our brain is confronted with multiple choices over the course of our reading. On the basis of a few lines on the retina, it successfully chooses the appropriate word from an encyclopaedia of at least 50,000 entries.

CHAPTER 2: THE BRAIN’S LETTERBOX

The first discoveries in the neurology of reading were made at the end of the 19th century. Doctor Joseph Jules Déjerine played a key role in this. Through the case study of one of his patients, he was the first to suppose that certain regions of the brain specialise in reading. They transmit information on the visual identity of letters and words at the same time that the language areas are activated.

Recent advances in medical imaging helped scientists discover that the visual analysis of words takes place in the left occipito-temporal region. However, this is not the only area that comes into play in the act of reading. Once there is visual recognition of the words, other pieces of information must be recovered. They include the roots of the words and their meaning, their sound…

“The human brain is not programmed to be capable of reading. It was made to feel, speak, hear, look… But we were not genetically programmed to learn to read.” Stanislas Dehaene, Reading in the Brain

Distinct cortical regions are activated every time. The occipito-temporal region acts like a letter box. It then delivers the information to the appropriate cortical regions. The complexity of these operations is not yet completely understood by scientists, despite the progress that has been made in brain imaging.

One thing is certain: no matter what nationality the reader or what language they are reading, whether from right to left or from left to right, we all read using the same brain circuit (source: Hasson, Levy, Behrmann, Hendler & Malach, 2002).

Each of the two brain hemispheres plays a role in recognising words and faces. However, the left side of our brain is most active during reading. The right sight plays a greater role in recognising faces.

Stanislas Dehaene goes on to wonder about the way in which our primal brain could anticipate reading. It even devoted an entire area of the brain to this.

What is clear is that the invention of writing, and therefore reading, was too recent for our brain to have time to evolve. Now we are going to see that some functions of regions of the brain have been redeployed to permit the act of reading.

Reading in the brain

CHAPTER 3: THE READING APE

We call on the neurons of vision in order to read. In Reading in the Brain, Stanislas Dehaene compares how the human brain works with that of the primates. This is in line with Darwin’s hypothesis, according to which the study of chimpanzees can offer insight into how humans function.

His conclusions are astonishing. It turns out that we can recognise written words thanks to an area of the brain that has always been specialised in visual identification of objects.

This area has been subject to “neuronal recycling”. Brain functions that were formerly used for other means are what allow us to read today. Also, some of our neurons are specialised in the recognition of a single object, seen from different viewpoints (from in front, from the side, magnified, reduced, in italics, etc.).

Stanislas Dehaene takes the example of an epileptic patient with a neuron that was only stimulated by a visual of Jennifer Aniston or her name!

But what about our ability to learn to read? Children start to read at around the age of 5 or 6. This is when the brain is at its most elastic. It can adapt to new operations, such as reading. From a very young age, children are prepped to recognise letters and words, especially learning about new shapes.

Areas of the brain have been converted to correspond to the new requirements of a different cultural context. When it comes to reading, it is absurd to separate the innate from the acquired. Both are intertwined. Our innate skills in visual recognition of objects are the basis on which our brain relies to adapt to our reading needs.

CHAPTER 4: INVENTING READING

These discoveries lead us to the question of “how?”. How did our brain invent an alphabet? What are the underlying reasons for the choice of such and such a combination of shapes to express a feeling or describe an object or a person with the help of letters and words.

Using a comparative study of several alphabets (Greek, Cyrillic, Hebrew, Arab, Thai or Chinese), and a study by his American colleagues, Stanislas Dehaene demonstrates how these alphabets contain similarities. Firstly, each letter is formed from approximately three strokes. This is an optimal number for good understanding in our cortex.

Next, the configuration of these strokes comes from shapes that we can find in nature (such as T or L). The images that come from the outside world were analysed, whether images from nature or from human activity.

The outlines of the analysed images often form simple T and L shapes. This may lead us to suppose that the “fathers of writing” chose characters with shapes drawn from their observation of nature to create their alphabets.

These shapes would have been easier to read. They were chosen, whether consciously or not, to define our writing systems.

Because the brain had to adapt to write and then read, it had to make do with its capacity, reduced to the framework of what Stanislas Dehaene calls “neuronal recycling”.

It all began with cave paintings. Man invented an initial form of visual stimulation, intended to represent his daily life.

Then, the use of small objects to help count played a role in the invention of writing. During archaeological digs in Persia, they found bags containing small objects (called calculi). The bags were marked with a number of strokes equal to the number of objects inside, sometimes followed by a symbol (20 cows, for example). A certain form of writing was invented.

South American civilisations also used engraved symbols for the purposes of counting. At first, they represented units of calendar time, such as days or years, before designating dates or people who were considered to be historic figures.

Writing with pictures did not last long. The scribes encountered several problems. They had to write quickly and represent abstract concepts (freedom, a slave, the gods, etc.).

Astonishingly, several civilisations chose the same solution. They combined images representing the object, its meaning and its pronunciation. This did however lead to a very complex system of writing. Understanding this kind of writing was limited to the initiated few.

The invention of Proto-Sinaitic script happened around 1700 BC. It made writing, and subsequently reading, more democratic.

CHAPTER 5: LEARNING TO READ

Children have a few short years in which they learn to read. The period from birth to 5 years of age is crucial for this learning to be a success. From the very first months of life, a child is extraordinarily competent at analysing language.

Depending on the native language spoken in the family, the different areas of the infant brain specialise very rapidly. They first process vowels and then consonants.

At around 5 years old, the child recognises words in their overall form. At around 6 years old, they break down the words into phonemes (syllables). Next comes the final stage of spelling in the learning process. Little by little, the child recognises the word at a glance. The length of the word doesn’t really matter. If the word is used infrequently, it requires more time to read it, because the child has to break it down, in contrast to words that they encounter frequently.

Therefore, to become an accomplished reader, a child must read a lot. This increases their vocabulary and they can recognise more and more words. Missing out on this essential step in “building vocabulary” could explain a certain number of difficulties later on, making speed reading difficult.

At around the age of 7, the left occipito-temporal region of the brain (determined to be the “reading” region) starts to become active. We can therefore say that learning to read transforms the skills of the brain.

But does this neuronal recycling of certain parts of the brain make us lose other skills? Or on the contrary, does it allow us to develop new skills?

These are the questions that experts are now trying to answer.

What is certain is that learning to read should rely on understanding these mechanisms. Cognitive psychology shows that learning to read using the “global method” is a heresy. By associating entire words, or even phrases with their meaning, a child does not break down the words into phonemes.

Stanislas Dehaene demonstrated in the earlier chapters that recognising syllables is an essential step in learning to read. These days, the French educational system strongly advises against using the global method, described as “calamitous” by then Minister for Education Luc Ferry in 2003.

Experiments in brain imaging have also demonstrated that learning to read using the global method mobilises a neuron circuit that is in complete opposition to that of expert reading!

Two major problems arise from this inappropriate method. Firstly, the child does not understand the rules of spelling, because they associate an image, a meaning with a word without using phonemes.

Secondly, there are difficulties when reading a new word. The child does not know how to decipher unknown words, because, once again, they did not learn to recognise the letters that make the syllables. Instead of that, they associate images and sounds with words they already know.

And yet, it is so satisfying for a child to successfully decipher a word that they did not learn in class!

This is what the author calls “conquering your freedom to read”.

Finally, it has been demonstrated that understanding a text is harder using the global method. It makes a child less efficient and slower when it comes to deciphering a text.

The author, Stanislas Dehaene, asks questions about what recommendations to give to teachers and parents when it comes to teaching a child to read.

He suggests using simple games, making use of sounds, for example (rhymes, syllables).

Another tool is to get a child to recognise and copy the letters of the alphabet, starting in kindergarten.

Then, starting in primary school, the child should understand the correspondence between graphemes and phonemes, starting with the simple ones and moving onto the more complex.

It is also necessary for a child to understand the meaning behind all this. Words allow us to express ideas and tell stories.

Learning to read has to be a coherent process, using the graphemes and the phonemes that the child knows. This is the only way that a child will develop genuine reading skills. They understand and memorise what they read without sacrificing “normal” reading speed.

However, it can be observed that not all children around the world are in the same position. To reach the same level as a Spanish child of 7, a French child will be 9 and an English child 11! This is mainly due to the complexity of the language.

In any case, a good idea is to encourage teacher knowledge of the neuronal mechanisms of reading. In this way, teachers can adapt their teaching and better understand the problems encountered by their pupils.

CHAPTER 6: THE DYSLEXIC BRAIN

Between 6 and 8% of French children suffer from dyslexia (source: collective expertise by the INSERM on Specific learning difficulties, 2007).

This consists of a difficulty in learning to read that cannot be explained by a mental or sensory deficiency or a disadvantaged background.

Several studies tend to prove that the explanation for dyslexia can be found in the brain and not in our genes.

Basically, dyslexic children have trouble recognising words. This leads to difficulty understanding sentences and written texts as a whole.

Above and beyond visual recognition of certain letters, dyslexic children find it hard to transform written signs into sounds. This makes it primarily a difficulty related to the perception of the spoken language.

What we do not yet know is whether this hearing “deficiency” is compounded by other sensory problems, visual ones for example.

Research has demonstrated that the problem of dyslexia originates in the brain. Part of the left temporal lobe of the dyslexic people under study is under-stimulated. This has been shown in several countries.

Therefore, dyslexia originates in an anomaly involving the neuronal and genetic mechanisms. To learn to read, a dyslexic child has to adopt a strategy of rehabilitation, with the help of suitable professionals, in order to become aware of phonemes. Through repeated exercises and thanks to the plasticity of the brain, a child can overcome dyslexia gradually and learn to read.

CHAPTER 7: READING AND SYMMETRY

As astonishing as it may seem, almost all children write “backwards”. They have the ability to write several letters symmetrically with no trouble at all. That is how an “S” becomes a squiggle.

They can even do this for their entire first name, writing from left to right. What is really incredible is that they do not even see the mistake!

Research has demonstrated that this is a key skill in our visual system. It is related to ancient mechanisms that were necessary for Man’s survival. It seems that the left-right axis was not a determining factor in the lives of our ancestors.

Stanislas Dehaene gives us the example of the tiger: whether it attacks from the left or the right, what mattered to our ancestors was that they could see it coming. The threat came from both sides.

On the other hand, assessing distances and deciding whether danger was coming from the sky or the ground were essential skills!

Getting back to reading, this symmetrical perception of things can make learning to read and to write tricky.

The mechanism of the mirror perception was described in the much-maligned theory of Orton. Samuel Orton studied the mechanisms of reading in the 1920s. He tried to explain the problems encountered by dyslexic children through brain symmetry.

For Orton, an image seen in the left hemisphere was matched in the right hemisphere, but inverted. His theory was that we can only use one hemisphere at a time to comprehend the world around us. However, as we alternate between the left and the right hemisphere, we invert the images like a mirror.

“Malnutrition is more dangerous to the brain than screens.” Stanislas Dehaene, author of Reading in the Brain

The theory is quite disputed these days. Research has shown it to be too simplistic.

It is, however, still hard to explain why some people get mixed up between left and right and write backwards.

Stanislas Dehaene comes back to the question of our visual system. There are in fact 2 systems co-habiting inside our brain. The first visual system recognises objects (the “what”) and the second one determines the elements that are required for our actions (the “how”: shape, meaning, how far away an object is).

To read and write, we all have to unlearn the mirror symmetry that is specific to the way we see things. When we start to learn, our second visual system works to allow us to distinguish between the spatial orientation of a “b” and a “d”.

Little by little it gives way to the first system. It understands that “b” and “d” are not different views of the same object, but are in fact two distinct objects. Next, the neuronal recycling described in the previous chapter develops. Visual recognition of words means that we no longer confuse words in mirror form.

This only happens after a long period of learning.

CHAPTER 8: TOWARDS A CULTURE OF NEURONS

In the final chapter, Stanislas Dehaene reminds us that reading is first and foremost a cultural invention. It is restricted by the way in which our brain is organised.

If this is the case when it comes to reading, why would it not be the same for all our “cultural inventions”? In the end, are they not all restricted by our mental structures, universal from one country to another?

That is why a number of research programmes are trying to make a connection between certain common points between human cultures (music, religion, art…) and the brain mechanisms that they make use of.

One objection remains: if Humankind recycled old brain mechanisms to invent multiple cultural elements, why did animal societies not do the same?

Why has no animal species (including the chimpanzee, very similar to Humans) invented picture representation?

There are several hypotheses on the table: Humans are born with an immature brain. This makes them adaptable. Humans are the only ones capable of sensitivity and understanding of the mind of others. This makes cultural transmission possible (an adult knows what a child does not know or understand and tries to teach that knowledge).

Finally, many researchers have come to the same conclusion. Only the human mind can break down information, summarise it and put it back together again to create and invent…

CONCLUSION: THE FUTURE OF READING

In his conclusion, Stanislas Dehaene comes back to the absolute importance of understanding the mechanisms of reading neurons to make teaching easier. Teachers should be given more freedom, research and experimentation should be encouraged. This trend should not be dependent on the political views of the decision-makers…

The question today is one of understanding and passing on the cultural invention that is reading. This will lead to better transmission of knowledge and the invention of a new tomorrow.

Linette from the blog Active: Conclusions about “Reading in the Brain”

I have always loved to read and I am passionate about words and the culture and science that they can offer.

I also wondered about the differences between different readers. Some people read very slowly, others much more quickly, and I am lucky enough to be among the latter.

How can this apparent inequality when it comes to reading be explained? That is how I became interested in the mechanics of this specifically human practice. Thanks to Reading in the Brain, I became passionate about the brain and its capacities.

Above all, I discovered that we ALL start out with the same ability when it comes to reading (unless there is a defect from birth). Our education, our training or life’s little accidents are what prevent us from making the best use of our brain’s capacities when it comes to reading.

Stanislas Dehaene explains how we learn to read is a very didactic manner.

His book is captivating for several reasons. Not only does look back over the history of reading, how humankind arrived at this “unnatural” act, he also goes into a scientific explanation of the neuronal mechanisms of reading.

From this point on, the reader, like the author, will develop a passion for exploring the brain and understanding what means can be used to improve the teaching methods used to learn to read.

The author makes us feel as though we are literally involved in an investigation. As you read the book, you become immersed in the world of research into neuroscience and cognitive psychology.

Reading in the Brain is a captivating book. I recommend it to any who is passionate about the extraordinary power of the brain or anyone who simply wants to find out more about the act of reading. This could be for yourself, or as a parent for your children, the apprentice readers.

Strong Ponits:

  • The desire to explain and to place understanding of the mechanisms of reading within everyone’s reach.
  • Examples and real experiences illustrate the author’s points.
  • The writing remains accessible.

Weak Points:

  • A few (rare) passages are very complex and need to be read more than once to be understood.

My rating : Reading in the Brain read Reading in the Brain read Reading in the Brain readReading in the Brain readReading in the Brain readReading in the Brain readReading in the Brain readReading in the Brain readReading in the Brain read

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