Thursday, July 31, 2008
Thinking About Reading and the Brain
I've been thinking a lot about reading this summer, and in talking to others about it, I was given the title of this book:
Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain
by Maryanne Wolfe, HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 2007.
Disclaimer: Reading one book does not an expert make! Although I am studying neuropsychology, and I do have a biological sciences background and recent coursework in neurobiology, most of my technical reading thus far has been in general neurobiology, general neurophysiology, and child psychopathology; my interest in these areas has been mainly about differences in visual processing found in children with autism, and also in certain other populations, including a sub-set of gifted children. I have gotten interested in the neuropsychology of reading because I am teaching reading this summer using a unique methodology developed by the Institute of Reading Development. My background helps me understand this book a little differently than the lay reader might, but I claim no expertise in this area. I have downloaded some of the source research studies described in this book, but I have not yet read them. Wolf and her colleagues are the true experts and I urge you to read this book and go beyond it to get the full implications of this work.
Whew! I just had to say that because what I am about to say is personal and speculative and is no way to be construed as having come down from Sinai!
This book is really three discourses in one. The first is about the development of writing and reading as a human cultural technology, and the implications thereof for changes in the connections between relatively fixed structures in the human brain that have not been modified for reading. The second is about the development of reading skills for individuals in literate cultures, how it differs across languages, and the implications of reading for the individual's brain and self. The third is about what may be going on in the brains of those for whom reading does not develop in the expected ways, those who have dyslexia.
All three discourses are interesting and well-explained, and they are all related to the others in complex ways. It is not easy to tease them apart. For example, the development of writing and reading as a cultural technology at the beginning of history (literally!) six thousand years ago, has made changes in neural connections in literate brains that have fascinating implications for the development of each individual reader and has also created within literate individuals a different mode of thinking and self-understanding from those who are not literate. In turn, intriguing new neurobiological discoveries about dyslexia, built on the hypotheses of pioneers such as Orton, demonstrate that reading is not natural to the human brain; rather it relies on older structures and abilities that are useful for other, more innate tasks. Wolf is very good at teasing these stories apart while maintaining the connections among them, and treats the reader to passages about meaning that are quite beautifully written.
I was most interested in Wolf's discussion of the development of the expert reader. When a child first begins to read, certain neural connections begin to form in the temporal-parietal regions of the brain that create associations among nearby primary and auditory centers, primary visual centers in the occipital lobe, and the language centers in the parietal lobe and frontal lobes. Normally, these connections are primarily developed in the left hemisphere, which also provides the exquisite timing necessary for fluency, although some right hemispheric involvement also occurs, the extent of which depends on the language and writing system being read. As the child works on decoding, his brain recruits a great number of neural connections, because the child is a novice. A great deal of gray matter, white matter and energy are required in this laborious process. Feed your children often and well, and give them lots of encouragement through this stage!
When fluent reading develops, more and more of the associations necessary to decoding and parsing written words to extract meaning become automatized, and fewer neurons and neural systems are needed for the task. As reading becomes automatic, the number of neurons needed for the mechanics of it become fewer, and more brain "space" is freed up for the meta-cognitive work that makes reading so valuable and pleasurable. What is really interesting is that these meta-cognitive tasks are done in the right hemisphere, where concepts, patterns, and meaning are associated with the reader's previous experience. Connections are therefore made across the hemispheres and reading becomes an internal dialogue between the reader and his experiences and the words written on the page. This is what makes reading a transcendent experience that creates for the reader the ability to bring herself whole--mind, heart, and soul--into the mind of another, or into wholly imaginary worlds that become real through the act of reading.
Like everything learned, reading does change our brains. The brain is composed of structures that are relatively stable; that is they are much the same in a modern literate person as they were in our Cro Magnon ancestors forty thousand years ago. However, the connections between these structures do change with the development of expert reading, and the weaving together of dedicated neural systems means that the literate person gains a new way of thinking that is not available to the non-reader.
There is a great deal of concern, especially among those of us who could not live without the meta-cognitions that reading has given us, about the decline of reading in American society, in favor of the more completely visual information technologies now developing. And although we know we cannot turn back the clock, we are concerned because we know that the assimilation of vast amounts of information is not equivalent to the ability to think meta-cognitively, reflectively, in the way of an expert reader.
One valid reason for this concern relates back to the issue of timing in the firing of neurons, which primarily developed in the language centers of the left hemisphere for the purpose of sequences. There are "delay neurons" whose job is to slow down neural firing, allowing time for sequencing and decision. Reading, which requires exquisite timing for fluency, supports in turn, time for contemplation and association with experience by the reader. It is not at all clear that the more graphic, iconic nature of the internet will do the same.
From my IRD reading teacher training, I learned that the real bottleneck for developing readers occurs between the stage where the child learns decoding and basic fluency skills, and the stage where the child reads enough to develop the fluency and comprehension required to achieve identification and absorption in works of literary fiction. Almost all American children achieve the first, and thus are not technically illiterate. Fewer and fewer achieve the second. My training manual says the following"
"The reason is straightforward enough: many children don't do enough reading in chapter books...for identification and absorption to become automatic...The reasons can probably be grouped into three main categories. First there is not general, widespread acceptance or understanding on the central importance of Stage 3 goals (i.e. fluency and comprehension enough to support identification and absorption. EHL) and consequently, most schools require an inadequate amount of reading in chapter books... (I)nstead, school reading often focuses on short pieces or excerpts....Second, reading has a hard time competing with electronic media...And third, children who achieve fluency in chapter books late in elemetary school have little opportunity to catch the reading bug before being caught up in all the competing demands of the middle school years."
--Version SU 08 1.5--4/14/08, Institute of Reading Development
In answer to Lisa's question, posed in the comments here, I think that given what we know about reading and the brain at this time, it would be a good idea to limit use of the internet as an educational tool, and to limit also the use of electronic media for entertainment, at least until a child has achieved the Stage 3 goals and can read with identification and absorption in chapter books. In this way we can ensure that the vast majority of kids achieve the neural connections necessary for the kind of associational thinking and reflection that are the gift of the expert reader. Then the internet can become a tool for the creation of ever more diverse associations and the development of new ways of thinking that do not displace those acquired through reading development.
However, we must also continue to remind ourselves that for students with dyslexia, who are using different neural pathways to develop reading, all bets are off. They may need and benefit from technology in ways that do not benefit the majority of our students. But that would be another blog!
I'm closing with Maryanne Wolf's version of Hemmingway's "one true sentence," from her conclusion to Chapter 6: The Unending Story of Reading Development in Proust and the Squid:
"The end of reading development doesn't exist; the unending story of reading moves ever forward, leaving the eye, the tongue, the word, the author for a new place from which the "truth breaks forth, fresh and green," changing the brain and the reader every time."
May her words whet your reading appetite. Go forth and read great books!