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What We Lose & What We Find

'...but not much more' ( paperbacks 5 ), by Jess Allen (@jessallenartist)

"Reading should not be presented to children as a chore, a duty. It should be offered as a gift." ~ Kate DiCamillo
"There's more to life than books, you know. But not much more." ~ The Smiths

One of the most complex things we ask our brains to do?

It’s reading.

We learn to read at a young age, and then, as adults, I think we forget how complex and challenging this task originally was. The act of learning to read is not merely about decoding symbols on a page; it's a process that fundamentally alters our cognitive landscape, combining visual and auditing processing in entirely new ways.

We take the words and create a world in our minds.

I recently delved into this fascinating area of cognitive research and stumbled upon a remarkable set of studies that uncovered something that piqued my curiosity – the skills we unlearn as part of our journey in learning to read.

Hold up, my brain literally screeched; in order to learn how to read, we have to reshape significant cognitive processes. And more than this, the areas of brain functioning required to read are already present in the brain before we even get stuck in (despite little in our ancient histories of evolution suggesting we would ever need to process language visually). These areas are ‘reformatted’ if you will, to take on the task of reading and steered away from doing what they’ve been doing our entire life before we start reading.

Colour me abso-fuding-lutely intrigued.

While we often celebrate acquiring new knowledge and skills that reading brings into our lives, it's equally important to explore the flip side: What do we unknowingly leave behind as we embark on this transformative journey?

The Brain's Mirrored World

A surprising and thought-provoking phenomenon to learn about in the realm of reading is our brain's ability to perceive mirror images. Studies have shown that our brain's capacity to interpret mirror images becomes somewhat muddled when we learn to read.

Research conducted by Dr. Stanislas Dehaene, a French author and prominent cognitive neuroscientist, sheds light on this matter. In his book Reading in the Brain, Dr. Dehaene explains that the brain regions responsible for reading are interconnected with those responsible for visual recognition. When we learn to read, these connections are reconfigured, allowing us to process text efficiently.

You can watch a lecture with Dr. Dehaene discussing his work here (and if you are a Francophile like myself, find much enjoyment in his wonderful French accent), but to wrap it up:

From the brain's point of view, learning to read consists of:

  1. Recognising the letters and how they combine into written words

  2. Connecting them to the brain systems for coding of speech sounds and meaning.

Reading begins in the brain's visual areas, specifically the occipital pole. It quickly transitions to the brain's letter box’ where knowledge of letters is stored, as termed by Professor Dehaene.

From there, reading activates two main brain networks: one related to understanding the meaning of words and another for pronouncing and articulating them.

When learning to read in school, your brain already possesses sophisticated spoken language and visual systems - the two just aren’t formally connected in any meaningful way at this point. Reading essentially bridges your brain's vision and spoken language systems, utilising shared areas that exist from a young age.

All sounds pretty straightforward so far, right? Reading is a complex task; it requires a redevelopment of how we use our brains - it makes sense we gain a lot through the process in terms of cognitive capacity.

But what do we lose in the process?

Well, one side effect relates to our brain's ability to see mirror images - a skill developed during early childhood - becoming less precise.

You may already know that young children learning to read and write often write right from left, or that they write letters backwards - mirrored writing. It’s very common and not connected to Dyslexia as many parents may fear; it’s simply a residual cognitive habit breaking through during this complicated process of learning to read.

As children, our brains are pretty tolerant when it comes to seeing mirror images. When we start learning to read, we need to unlearn this tolerance to distinguish letters and words effectively. These two processes co-exist in the same part of the brain, and reading wins out in usefulness.

(A super interesting point that Dr. Dehaene makes in his lecture is that mirror writing was very common in ancient Greece. Writing systems that go from right to left are sometimes called Dextrosinistral. Some languages still work in this way, so my next big forage into this area of research is to understand how learning to read shapes the brains of those who learn to read these languages and whether it has the same effect on their capacity to perceive mirrored images/text. Anyway, I digress.)

This isn’t to say that our ability to perceive mirror images just simply disappears (obviously), but that our ability to do so moves to another part of the brain. Dr. Dehaene’s research has found that this new part of the brain becomes more adept at doing this in direct correlation with our literacy.

While it's believed that this unlearning happens gradually and that reading expertise affects our ability to discern mirror-image letters, there hasn't been enough solid evidence to support this idea. To address this gap, one study examined how beginning and expert readers react to mirror-image letters while making word decisions based on what they heard.

The study found that when participants had to choose the correct word based on what they heard, mirror-image distractors (words that were the same as the target word except for the reversed position of two letters) attracted more attention than distractors created by swapping two letters. Interestingly, the study revealed that beginning readers were more tolerant (less sensitive) to mirror-image letters than expert readers. This suggests that reading expertise affects how we perceive these mirror-image letters.

In essence, the study highlights that as we learn to read, our brains change the way they process letters, and our level of reading expertise influences this change.

This raises intriguing questions about the relationship between reading and our perceptual abilities. It suggests that reading is not just a one-way process of acquiring knowledge - it also involves a subtle rewiring of our neural pathways, which can impact our cognitive functions.

Reading as a Journey of Unlearning

There’s nothing I love more than some solid brain science.

Something I’ve been fond of sharing in recent years is my belief that our brains are the Universe (the capital U, mystical sense of the term, not the actual physical universe).

Our brains are incredible - they create every single thing we think and feel for the entirety of our lives. They shape our perspectives, perceptions, behaviours and e v e r y t h i n g.

How can you believe that something else outside of you exists to influence your life when it is all happening in your own brain!

You are literally creating your own experience - your world - EVERY day with your BRAIN.

I will never get over the magic of it.

“It occurs to me that we allow ourselves to imagine only such messages as we need to survive.” ~ Joan Didion

Learning to read, as an avid lover of the experience, is just one significant process to point towards in this regard. Moving away from the mind-blowing cognitive science of what happens in our brains physically to engage with this experience, reading is a unique personal and emotional experience in its own right.

I’ve written about the power of reading to shape our worldviews, taking us on journeys that necessitate leaving behind preconceived notions and biases that may have shaped our thinking before we embraced the written word.

One of the most profound aspects of unlearning through reading is the challenge it poses to our unconscious biases. We expose ourselves to a rich tapestry of voices and perspectives when we read books, articles, or narratives from various authors and cultures. This exposure can disrupt the biases ingrained in us from our upbringing or societal influences.

Research by social psychologists such as Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald, co-authors of the influential book Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People, highlights the pervasive nature of unconscious biases. These biases affect our judgments and interactions with others, often without our conscious awareness. Reading can be a powerful antidote, encouraging us to confront and reevaluate our biases as we encounter diverse characters and viewpoints in literature. It’s why it’s so important to take stock of our bookshelves and make sure we’re not allowing our brains to simply gear us towards the things that correlate with our existing perspectives - we need to challenge ourselves, or we’ll simply become echo chambers for a narrow worldview.

"As you read a book word by word and page by page, you participate in its creation, just as a cellist playing a Bach suite participates, note by note, in the creation, the coming-to-be, the existence, of the music. And, as you read and re-read, the book, of course, participates in the creation of you, your thoughts and feelings, the size and temper of your soul." ~ Ursula K. Le Guin

As we read, we develop empathy for characters who are different from us in various ways, whether their cultural background, gender, or life experiences. This empathy-building process challenges and often dismantles the stereotypes and prejudices that may have once shaped our thinking.

Psychologists David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano conducted a study published in the journal Science that found a connection between literary fiction and increased empathy. They concluded that reading literary fiction can enhance our ability to understand and empathise with others' emotions and perspectives. I talk about this research in more depth in a previous blog, Fact From Fiction (which you might enjoy reading if you liked this piece; I promise it’s less heavy on the brain science!).

This newfound empathy extends beyond the pages of a book and can influence our interactions with people in the real world. As we read about characters who face adversity, we become more compassionate and understanding when we encounter similar challenges in the lives of those around us.

The Beautiful Paradox of Reading

The act of learning to read is a profound journey that encompasses both learning and unlearning. While we acquire new knowledge and skills, we also unknowingly leave behind certain cognitive habits and biases. The research revealing the impact of reading on our brain's ability to perceive mirror images is just one facet of this intricate process.

Reading has the potential to reshape not only our minds but our entire worldview, how we perceive others, and how we embrace the challenges of our lives.

In the words of Carl Sagan:

"Books break the shackles of time, proof that humans can work magic."

As you pick up your next book or delve into an intriguing article, remember you are not only acquiring knowledge; you are unlearning and evolving, one page at a time.


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