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.
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)
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November 11, 2009
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