How can marks on a paper, wall or other surface differ from the way our brain processes other form of communication?

Although we taking reading and writing for granted, there was a time – not too many generations ago, when it didn’t exist. Ancient petroglyphs all over the world date back thousands of years, when sketches on the walls of caves, under rock overhang and inside tombs were the means of communication, and that too had to evolve over centuries.

In present day Iran, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere in the middle east you can find cuniforms, the older known form of writing, that provided the foundation for civilization as we know it today – from basic stick figures to standardized symbols. It is writing, the setting down of ideas into a form that travels across space and time, that sets man apart from other creatures.

Spoken language was hard-wired in our brain since the beginning of mankind. Any human brain exposed to language in the developmental stage reacts to it spontaneously. The same can’t be said for writing. It is artificial – a developed skill.

Voltaire once described it, in his Philosophical Dictionary of 1764: “Writing is the painting of the voice.”

Stanislas Dehaene holds the chair of Experimental Cognitive Psychology at the Collège de France, France’s most advanced neuroimaging research center. His new book, “Reading in the Brain,” describes his quest to understand an astounding feat that most of us take for granted: translating marks on a page (or a screen) into language.

“I began to wonder how it was even possible that our brain could adapt to reading, given it obviously never evolved for that purpose…reading forces us to propose a very different view of the relationship between culture and the brain,” he said.

According to Dehaene, the human brain is constantly learning and adapting, and is free to invent entirely new cultural forms – like writing. “Essentially, the brain did not evolve for culture, but culture evolved to be learnable by the brain.” Humanity is constantly on the lookout for specific niches in the brain, for spaces of plasticity that can transform it for reading, writing and arithmetic. 

An American researcher, Marc Changizi, made an interesting discovery in that all of the world’s writing systems use the same set of basic shapes, and these shapes are already part of the primate’s visual system used for coding natural visual scenes.

“The monkey brain already contains neurons that preferentially respond to an “alphabet” of shapes including T, L, Y. We merely “recycle” these shapes (and the corresponding part of cortex) and turn them into a cultural code for language,” says Dehaene.

On the inferior face of the left hemisphere a visual region exists that helps us to recognize our environment. This area of the brain specializes in written characters and words. “What is fascinating is that it is at the same location in all of us – whether we read Chinese, Hebrew or English, whether we’ve learned with whole-language or phonics methods, a single brain region seems to take on the function of recognizing the visual word,” Dehaene says. That area of the brain helps us recognize objects, faces and scenes, regardless of the particular viewpoint, lighting, and other superficial variations.



About the author:

Ron White is a two-time U.S.A. Memory Champion and memory training expert. As a memory keynote speaker he travels the world to speak before large groups or small company seminars, demonstrating his memory skills and teaching others how to improve their memory, and how important a good memory is in all phases of your life.




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