Proust and the Squid

Recommended Read

Wolf, Maryanne. Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. New York: Harper Perennial, 2007. [ISBN-13: 978-0-06-093384-5]

The argument that grounds Proust and the Squid is that the human mind isn’t hardwired for reading the way it is for speech. While the average child left in earshot of others’ speech will quickly and spontaneously learn to speak, a child in arm’s reach of writing can only learn to read after years of laborious tuition and study.

While speaking and listening to speech employ areas of the brain that have become recognized as language centers, reading is much more complex, drawing on the same language centers as well as visual regions, occipital, temporal and parietal areas of the brain.

All these parts are necessary to make sense of images, to dissect heard sounds into their constituent syllables, and to connect all this visual, auditory, and linguistic input with conceptual processing that can decode an author’s meaning. Maryanne Wolf argues that each person who has ever learned to read has had to second already existing and unrelated brain regions in the service of reading. To read we must rewire our minds, and the activity of reading itself changes our neural circuitry. Evidence has already shown that each new skill we learn creates new pathways in the brain, so it makes sense that reading would be no different.

Wolf investigates the reading brain by looking at the earliest systems of writing and tracking how these systems have changed in the past 6000 or so years. She discusses the development of  logographic writing, syllabary systems, and alphabets. In each case she considers how these written forms were taught to new readers, how they developed over time, and the different parts of the brain readers mobilize to make sense of each of these writing systems.

It had never occurred to me that to read different writing systems readers would need to use different parts of their brains. For example Wolf explains how Chinese (a logographic writing system in which thousands of different symbols represent whole words) will cause particular areas of the brain to light up in an fMRI scan, whereas the same reader’s brain will exhibit different patterns of activity when reading French (an alphabetic language where each symbol stands in for one phoneme).

Scientists have traced the neural routes the written word must travel before it becomes meaningful and even how long it takes for written information to follow these routes. It will come as no surprise that for novice readers still forming these reading connections, the information travels more slowly. With time and practice the information is processed at such speeds that we have the impressive ability to decode what we’re reading so quickly we have time to react to and consider our own views of what we’re reading as we go.

Of course, some people must struggle to achieve this degree of automaticity in reading, and some never acquire it. Wolf’s discussion of dyslexia considers some of the differences in how brains can wire themselves to read. Sometimes the pathways between the crucial parts of the reading brain can take a different, longer route. This longer route slows decoding down enough to make it more difficult to read at great speeds with ease. However, these different pathways are also suspected of gifting dyslexic people with other benefits such as increased spatial abilities—maybe this is why so many architects and artists are dyslexic.

If you’re interested in the evolution of reading, how individuals learn to read, or why some people find reading so difficult, I recommend Proust and the Squid. Wolf combines anthropology, literary study,  and scientific research to reveal a fuller picture of what your brain is doing as you read this post, what it’s doing while you read her really fascinating book.

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