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Reading in the Brain: The Science and Evolution of a Human Invention Hardcover – November 12, 2009

4.2 out of 5 stars 41 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From 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)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

About the Author

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

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Viking Adult; 1 edition (November 12, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0670021105
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670021109
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.4 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (41 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #754,600 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By James T. Ranney on December 9, 2009
Format: Hardcover
An astonishing work, explaining convincingly how mankind acquired (only in the last 5,000 years) a skill we all take for granted: reading. The brief explanation, as I (a non-scientist) understand it? Reading takes quite a lot of brain computer firepower (because of the multiple processing required), such that our eventually huge frontal lobes were necessary. The portions of our brain used initially for visual recognition lead to the wiring of our brains to recognize certain key shapes, shapes that eventually become the key "strokes" used in writing (by all cultures) such that they are in effect structured into our brain's learning algorithm, creating specific neuronal circuits and structures, previously used as visual pathways. It's an amazing story, well told by one well placed to present the many brain science studies (many of which he conducted) which fully explicate the story. Also numerous "side-stories" worth hearing: e.g., re the origins of our alphabet, along with occasional hints of possible future evolution of the human brain. An A+ book.
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Format: Hardcover
Author Dehaene, who has some very impressive credentials, has made an exhaustive exploration of how the human brain reads. What he has concluded is that we `recycle' parts of the brain that were evolved to do other things. Humans have been evolving for several million years, but only reading for a few thousand- a new structure just for reading couldn't have been created in that time. And reading arose in several geographical areas around the same time- the chances of a special mutation for reading happening in all those places is pretty slim.

Hundreds of experiments, from EEGs, fMRIs, split brain surgeries, tests on people who have had strokes or other brain damage, have found how reading works. From how the eye functions, to the recognition of letters on paper, to turning them mentally into sound, and putting those sounds together into words, Dehaene has traced the path. He gives his opinions on what seem to be the best way to teach reading, but also calls for large experiments in teaching reading to resolve, once and for all, what is the best, most efficient way to teach all- not just average children but adult illiterates and people with dyslexia.

The book is very interesting, but it can be slow going. He gives the conditions and results of test after test, and tells us what the information gained tells us about reading. What the reader learns about their brain makes it worth sticking with the book.
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Format: Hardcover
Although one of the main topics covered in this book is dyslexia and how it may be a culturally defined disorder as well as a neurological disorder, the book covers a wide range of data. Dehaene is very thorough, offering extensive fMRI maps of up to date research on modules of the brain pertaining to reading. The book may be hard to wade through for those of us unfamiliar with extensive neurological terminology, but Dehaene works hard to ensure that his readers understand the issues. A very worthwhile read for any linguist, cognitive scientist, or anyone simply interested in the evolution of reading in our ambitious pleistocene minds.
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Format: Paperback
One of the last chapters opens with an epigraph from Umberto Eco "If God existed, he would be a library."

Which tickled my fancy, but doesn't necessarily portray Dehaene's stance about how inborn structural properties of our brain are co-opted and retrained (neuronal recycling)in order for humans to develop the ability to recognize words and understand them (no matter if Chinese or French.)

"Recycling, on the other hand, implies that before cortical regions convert to other uses, they already possess prior structural properties inherited from evolution. Each cortical region starts out with a portfolio of assets and liabilities that are only partially rearranged by learning."

Dehaene uses most of his book to describe in detail the work of various researchers in figuring out where certain processes in the brain reside. His development of a theory of the "letterbox", or a parallel series of processes/areas that get activated in order to recognize letters is fascinating stuff. However, for a laywoman like me (I'm from a language acquisition education background, but by no means a scientist)it was heavy duty reading.

I slogged through it nonetheless, and emerged with an interesting view on how evolution might have prepared our brain in two important ways: by helping us be expert recognizers of primary geometric shapes and b) giving us the ability to recognize mirror images of objects even if we've only seen a profile.

Again, it was heavy technical speak about different sections of the brain, but ultimately manageable. What makes this book most interesting to an educator like me are the last few chapters which talk about implications of Dehaene's research and theories on both first language acquisition and on dyslexia.
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Format: Hardcover
I found/find this book interesting from sentence one: "At this moment, your brain is accomplishing an amazing feat - reading" (p. 1). The book moves on to look at: theory, science, applications for educators and parents, and critical issues in the area of literacy. I am not sure I agree with all that is presented on Dyslexia, especially in reference to McGuinness (2005: see Language Development and Learning to Read: The Scientific Study of How Language Development Affects Reading Skill (Bradford Books)), suggesting quite the opposite - BUT - I do appreciate the literature as those of us interested in issues such as Dyslexia should have a balanced read.

I also like how Dehaene addresses the underpinnings of reading from a neurological perspective attempting to share what we know think we understand.

I do think this book is not replaceable by other books and deserves a solid spot on the shelf of any educator or academic interested in literacy - especially from a cognitive science perspective. It is easy to follow and can either be read or used as a reference book.
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