December 10, 2019

Reading in the Brain by Stanislas Dehaene.

This week, we journey into the realm of the neurological here at Astroguyz. Don’t worry; like we do with everything in life, this one will have a cosmic twist…

Our ability to read is a fundamental mystery of our brain and how we’re wired. Think about it; (pun intended) we’ve been human for millions of years, but only had written language for the last few thousand. Evolution and natural selection seldom work on such short time scales; obviously, our brain has learned to co-opt some of the pre-existing skills towards the ability to communicate and decipher language. But just how does the brain perform this lengthy interpretive act?

Enter scientific researcher Stanislas Dehaene with this week’s latest review, Reading in the Brain, the Science and Evolution of Human Invention. Out courtesy of Viking Press, this book takes a unique and fascinating look into how the brain works and how the printed page goes from meaningless symbols to full cognitive understanding. The book also delves into some unique aspects of human language that many of us take for granted. Have you ever wondered why some features of writing systems are universal? Or why some languages are relatively simple to master, while others fiendish difficult? (English is actually a big loser in this area). This book touches on all this and more. Dehaene is himself an accomplished cognitive neuroscientist, and has spent a great deal of time looking at electrical impulses and what goes on in people’s brains as they read. Reading in the Brain is no less than a look at how we evolved into a culture of readers. While no one can deny the obvious advantage to our ability to store information outside of ourselves in libraries or on the Internet, it still amazes us that we can perform this intricate feat at all! Reading also looks at disabilities such as dyslexia that give us some insight into how we read. It is ironic that much of our understanding of the human brain comes from stroke victims or individuals suffering specific lesions on the brain.

One key mystery both in neurology and computer security is how we can interpret words that are badly misspelled or mangled. This is evident whenever you see those “type the distorted word here” prompts; computers are still very bad at interpreting what your brain can easily see.  Think of all the various font sizes that your brain has no problem interpreting…   the author also uses several interesting similar illustrations to demonstrate this point.

One intriguing concept proposed is that certain neurons are wired to accept learned or ordered sets of symbols in a way that they allow for some tolerance in variability. Dubbed “Bigram neurons” discovery of these would re-write neuroscience. Of course, web-site developers would then have to up their security ante once again…

Central to the premise of the book is the idea that we’ve gained an ability to read and write by re-appropriating portions of our brain meant for hunting and gathering. As a predator, our ability to interpret our environment is key to our survival; trees and cattle don’t have to be very smart to absorb energy and survive. And herein lies the promised cosmic thought of the day: perhaps being a top predator is necessary to higher intelligence. When we finally meet the aliens, will they all be intelligent wolves or killer whales (or their analogous equivalents) but never sheep or petunias? To design the printing press and the IPad, does one first have to be a bookworm carnivore? Of course, I’d love to see the answer to this one in our life-times… If so, we want credit for the “Klingon Hypothesis…”

Do pick up Reading in the Brain if you have an interest in neuroscience, evolution, or learning and cognition. As an educator in training myself, I found some of its insight unique and fascinating, as well as valuable to those of us who teach follow humans the sometimes tough act of reading.

Well, that’s the Astroguyz take on brain surgery… don’t beat us up too badly, as rocket science is more our meat and potatoes. Next week, we’ll be back into the astronomical fray, as we continue to track the orbital adventures of space shuttle Discovery and the crew of the International Space Station!


  1. NdYAG Laser says:

    there are many famous persons with dyslexia and it is not a debilitating disease. Tom Cruise is known to be dyslexic `’,

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