From Words to Brain

Excerpts from Livia Blackburne, From Words to Brain, 2010, 40K.


If the words are there, it’s impossible not to read.

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Now think about this for a minute. Here we have a completely artificial task. It’s not part of our biology – humans aren’t born with an innate reading reflex. If you raise a child on a desert island, he’ll learn to eat, walk, and sleep, but odds are he won’t spontaneously pick up a stick and start writing. For most of human history, written language didn’t even exist. Reading as a cultural invention has only been around for a few thousand years, a snap of a finger in evolutionary terms.

Pag. 4.


So what happens when you take a brain used to making mirror generalizations and teach it to read? Any parents of school-age children could tell you. When you’re first learning, you make lots of mistakes. Mirror reversal is overwhelmingly common in beginning writers, from the occasional flipped letter to whole words written as a mirror image. Kids do this spontaneously. They never actually see flipped letters in the world around them.

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Changizi suspected that we could find out by studying the kinds of images our visual systems evolved to process: real world scenes and objects. While scenes are much more complex than letters, they still contain topological shapes. For example, the inside corner of a room where three edges meet forms a Y. Also, any vertical edge that disappears behind a horizontal edge would form a T. In fact, T junctions are often used in machine vision to help with identifying and segmenting objects.

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If our visual systems are somehow optimized to process natural surroundings, then our writing systems are also optimized to mimic the topologies of natural surroundings. Granted, our ancestors probably did not do this on purpose, but it’s possible that over time and with repeated use, writing systems have culturally evolved to be easy on the eyes[2].

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It’s clear that participants are not simply projecting the bare meaning of the words in a sentence. They are adding to it. They read about an eagle in the sky, and they bring in all their knowledge about eagles, the sky, even the laws of physics. They know that eagles cannot simply levitate, so if the eagle is in the sky, it has to be flying. To fly, it needs to stretch out its wings.

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Most of the time, the speaker’s brain activity came slightly before the listener’s brain activation, which makes sense because the speaker has to think up the story before she says it. However, some listeners occasionally predicted the speaker’s brain activity. When Stephens and Silbert looked closer, they found that these listeners were the ones that scored the highest on a subsequent comprehension test. These listeners were so engaged in the story that they were predicting what would come next.

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The first step is to use real world knowledge for imagery and understanding. The next step is to extend that knowledge to predict what will happen next. The common theme is that of reading as an active rather than a passive experience.

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While this ability comes easily to adults, it’s a fairly difficult task. The majority of five-year-olds can answer these questions correctly, but three-year-olds very often say that Sally will look under the bed. They can’t distinguish between reality and the representation of reality in someone’s head[6].

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Singer addressed this problem by recruiting romantic partners, who most likely would be predisposed to mutual empathy. The researchers connected both the woman and her partner to electrodes capable of delivering a mildly painful shock. The woman was in the brain scanner while her partner remained outside. During the experiment, the scientists alternated applying pain to either the woman or her partner. An arrow on a monitor indicated who was receiving a shock. When the woman received a shock, a network of pain processing regions became active in her brain. The main question in the experiment, however, was what would happen in the woman’s brain when she knew that her partner was receiving a shock. The researchers found that some of the regions that processed the woman’s own pain also activated in response to her loved one’s pain. In this way, empathy is similar to the mental imagery from the previous chapter.

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On average, women had the same amount of empathy-related activation for both the fair and unfair players. Men, however, had significantly lower levels of empathy-related activation for the unfair player. In addition to the activation in pain areas, the researchers also looked at the activation in regions associated with reward processing.

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When we read stories, we do not remember them in a vacuum. Instead, they are integrated with the rest of our knowledge. Psychologists often use the term schemas, mental models of how things work, to talk about memory. We have schemas about all aspects of the world.

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Gossip serves many purposes.

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Likewise, most fictional stories tell a specific story about an individual while simultaneously conveying a general theme or morale. The Grimm’s Brothers version of Little Red Riding Hood ends with the girl exclaiming “As long as I live, I will never by myself leave the path, to run into the wood, when my mother has forbidden me to do so.” The story is a warning to little girls to be careful of the wolves of the world and stay on the path where it is safe. While this is the message of the Grimm’s version, different cultures might spin the story a different way. A more modern retelling of the story might play down the safety aspect and instead present an adventure in which Red, Grandma, and the woodsman work together to outwit the Wolf – a story of empowerment rather than of caution.

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We began with written words and followed their decoding in the reader’s mind through their comprehension and finally interpretation. Notice that the story has undergone a transformation. When it’s on the page, it’s immutable and objective. As soon as the reader sees the story, it takes on a new life, relying on the reader’s knowledge and life experience to take shape. Eventually, the narrative expands beyond that, taking on nuances and worldview from the reader’s community. And finally, some stories find resonance, spreading from reader to reader and setting in action changes that affect the world.

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