Stanislaus Dehaene’s Reading in the Brain

Reading in the Brain Tradition has it that the first Chinese letters were inspired by a hoof print on a riverbank four and a half thousand years ago. The Emperor Huangdi had ordered his minister Cang Jie to improve the court’s means for storing information, which at the time consisted of knots tied in strings. After much fretful pondering, Cang Jie happened on a strangely shaped hoof; he’d never seen one like it, though it clearly belonged to some kind of animal. He realized at once that animal tracks in general, easily reproduced and distinguished one from each other, could stand in as reliable signs for any conceivable thing – even things that had never been seen.

In his 2009 book Reading in the Brain: the New Science of How We Read, Stanislaus Dehaene tells a much more complicated version of what is effectively the same story. Honored with the first chair of Experimental Cognitive Psychology at the Collège de France in 2005, Dehaene is best known for his popular, albeit demanding, summations of recent neuroscience, including The Number Sense in 1997 and, more recently and ambitiously, Consciousness and the Brain in 2014.

Like Cang Jie, we have to go through a bit of concentrated puzzlement before we find the animal tracks in Reading in the Brain. Dehaene only reveals them as a possible inspiration for the invention of writing in the second half of his book. The prior two hundred and some pages are devoted to detailed descriptions of brain injuries, fMRIs, experimental “event-related potentials,” intracranial electrode readings, and analyses of the graphic principles underlying the world’s writing systems, all of which add up to an intimate encounter with the complex physiological processes going on in your brain right now.

The crux of all the neuroscience is that humans come equipped with an array of specialized neural “centers” for processing visual information of various kinds. These centers sort what William James famously called the “blooming, buzzing confusion” of the world into relatively stable categories and ideas. Thus, for example, we know a friend’s face, apart from whatever expression she wears from one occasion to the next. At the same time, we can spot tell-tale signs of anger, fear or joy on a stranger’s face without the slightest conscious effort. And we take these talents for “invariant pattern recognition” a step further when we teach ourselves, say, to spot a prothonotary warbler on the far bank of the Potomac, or identify what species of oak it’s sitting in – knowledge that is not innate but becomes, as it were, a second nature.

These basic human knacks – for recognizing invariant visual patterns and assigning a fixed significance to them – are the innate cognitive tools with which we built our systems for writing and reading. That is, we teach ourselves to identify letters whether they’re scratched or chiseled, upper or lower case, Times or Comic Sans, or deviously jumbled into a ransom note. This is because we can see through extraordinary typographical variety to letters’ underlying invariant formal patterns, which even the most elaborate fonts have to maintain to allow us to keep reading. With such invariance established among written signs, we invent more complex but still relatively stable means for combining them into words and sentences and associating them with potentially infinite categories of experience and ideas.

It’s crucial that, in comparison to language per se, we have a very solid knowledge of the origins of writing. Reliable evidence of the historical origins of human language itself are probably all but lost to us. But evidence of the first writing systems (i.e., visual signs that stand in for spoken language) is comparatively abundant, and typically dated no further back than about the fourth or fifth century bce, after which writing systems seem to have begun appearing independently of each other among disparate cultures around the world. The relatively recent and rapid origins of writing systems make it clear that humans can’t have evolved specifically to read. There has simply not been enough time for natural selection to have guided this momentous turn in human affairs.

So we have to account for this new skill by finding its evolutionary roots somewhere else in our brains’ large but still limited repertoire. Since our supply of neurons is ultimately finite, we must have borrowed or, in Dehaene’s terms, “recycled” some part or parts of the brain that had originally evolved to perform some other activity involving similarly complex visual sorting and categorization. So what was this now-relegated function?

Channeling Cang Jie, Dehaene surmises that it may well have been animal tracking, among other things. In sum, Dehaene proposes that our ability to develop a written language depended on trading in our ability to “read” complex combinations of signs in the mountains, forests, savannahs and deserts we had long wandered as hunter-gatherers. It is probably not a coincidence, he argues, that the world’s writing systems tend to be based on relatively simple and limited formal schema of the same kind that we see in animal tracks, vegetation, and other patterned phenomena in natural environments of which we had to have an intimate visual knowledge in order to survive. (Nor is it surprising that the earliest full-blown writing systems flourished primarily in settled agricultural societies.)

So much for origins. Yet Dehaene does not simply look back in trying to understand how we read. He also wants to use the insights of the latest new science to venture ‘Toward a Culture of Neurons,” as he announces in his last chapter. There, he sums up the larger argument of the book: that we must rethink the currently popular notion of the brain and, by extension, human culture, as highly malleable, “plastic” formations. He uses our reading brains as evidence of the essential constraints on what we can hope to achieve with the mental endowment we have inherited from millions of years of selective pressures of all kinds. The small number of formal variations in the elements of most writing systems are to Dehaene important evidence of the similarly well-defined and fixed brain structures that have shaped them. On his view, the innate patterning of our neurological equipment in general will favor a cultural environment that fits this evolutionary endowment, which necessarily constrains whatever hopes we may have for cultural innovation.

Thus, for example, he devotes a major portion of his book to demonstrating the neuroscience of phenomena like synesthesia and especially dyslexia, both of which put large numbers of readers at odds with culturally-determined pedagogical practices. Based on his own and allied research, Dehaene makes a very persuasive case for how – and how not – to teach reading, including to the many children whose brains are structured in myriad ways differently than the predominating pattern. More generally, Dehaene argues that without the guidance we get from good brain research, we often follow misguided cultural imperatives that risk not making the most of our innate abilities, or confuse us unnecessarily and risk making us miserable.

There is thus much to recommend Dehaene’s work in the way of correctives to even well-meaning but misguided pedagogies (for instance – the field of applications of brain science is potentially much larger, of course). But Dehaene risks overreaching in his hopes for the new science of the brain. He has argued elsewhere that his work on the reading brain vindicates the now much-contested “structuralist” theory of culture associated most closely with the work of anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss. Briefly, on the structuralist view, there is an underlying but discernable pattern of binary categories that orient every distinct culture’s responses to universal aspects of human experience (death, for example, or birth, or kinship). Dehaene supposes that within such cultural categories, or “structures,” lie “specific brain systems” of the kind he has described in the case not only of reading, but before that of math, and now of consciousness itself.

In fact, in his most recent book, Dehaene takes his structuralism a step further by addressing himself directly to the challenge posed by philosopher David Chalmers as the so-called “hard problem of consciousness.” For Chalmers, the “easy” questions about consciousness can be answered by the means Dehaene so adeptly deploys: experimental cognitive psychology and brain imaging. Experimentation leads inevitably to a functional understanding of how the brain performs tasks such as telling one thing from another, or focusing attention on a particular subject, or recognizing patterns on a computer screen as words. But the firmest grasp of the brain’s functioning can never, Chalmers argues, explain in turn our unique conscious feelings of, say, a color, or a taste, or an especially satisfying passage of prose or poetry.

Dehaene differs fundamentally, arguing that Chalmers has the problems reversed. What Chalmers considers easy problems, Dehaene asserts are the hard ones – with his career as an experimenalist to back him up. Chalmers’ hard problem, on the other hand, Dehaene thinks will turn out not to have been a problem at all, but the long-cherished illusion of an interior realm of self-awareness we will no longer be able to maintain once we’ve sufficiently understood how the brain works.

I won’t presume to adjudicate between Dehaene and Chalmers here (though reliable accounts put Dehaene currently among the minority). I relate Dehaene’s account of consciousness to indicate how deeply he holds to the idea that the brain contains within itself a sufficient map of virtually every aspect of human existence. His interest in Levi-Straussian structuralism is thus clear, but also telling in how little it affords a guide to developing “a culture” of neurons, or of anything else, at that. Structuralist anthropology proceeds by way of comparisons between specific cultures in order to arrive at rubrics within which any given culture can be situated for further comparative analysis. The chief critiques of structuralism that have emerged over the last fifty or sixty-odd years have disputed the very project of adducing a stable categorization of cultural phenomena that does not itself rely on already-received terms of analysis. Indeed, it may well be that, as in Dehaene’s view, there is a finite set of brain functions that we may arrive, in time, arrive at defining in their co-operation. But this is to leave open any question as to what we, with the incredible endowment of our brains, are capable of actually doing. In short, a function is not a purpose.

Take the graphic limits that Dehaene adduces within the world’s alphabets: they are beautiful examples of the endlessly generative possibilities of the kinds of strict structural constraints with which he proposes to guide cultural development. But the minimalist structures Dehaene describes so compellingly in fact open up the endless possibilities of writing and reading that have given us, among other things, the world’s imaginative literature. With it has come the rich variety of forms of consciousness that literature preserves and communicates from the past to us and, through us, into whatever future awaits what is still our most important invention to date.

In brief, Dehaene seems to mistake the tool for the variety of ends it makes possible.  To his credit, however, he hints at the possibility that culture represents more than the operation of brain cells. While he looks in the end “toward a culture of neurons,” Dehaene opens by quoting Francisco de Quevedo, a Spanish Baroque man of letters, for whom to read was “to listen to the dead with [his] eyes.” Quevedo’s image is surely one of the most striking and most widely quoted descriptions of reading ever devised. But pinning down just how this or any other tolerably successful metaphor makes meaning is a notoriously difficult problem. Quevedo’s (so far as I know, unique) description of reading makes immediate and eminent metaphorical sense even as the common meanings of his words add up to perfect nonsense. Such tension between sense and nonsense is a hallmark of good metaphors: they play simultaneously into and against our conventional understandings; they make startling, even risky leaps into the realm of meaning and thrill us when they stick the landing. In terms of the structures that govern language and its normal, everyday functions, metaphor relies on them even as they simultaneously defy them.

Perhaps not surprisingly, metaphor turns up as one of the central functions in Dehaene’s own culture of neurons, i.e. his own playful attempt to jostle us out of our current thinking by juxtaposing ideas we thought we understood. He remarks that the basic human ability to make metaphors appears to have been crucial in the invention of writing itself. Having stripped our environment down into recognizable, reliable signs, we then made the extra and decisive leap of stripping those signs of their naturally given associations in order to assign them to whatever phenomena we pleased, no matter how abstract. This is the leap of metaphor, the mapping of one disparate idea onto another, which Dehaene locates in the human brain’s limitless ability to create new associations between its functional centers. Though the brain’s functions are indeed limited in kind and number, like the letters of the alphabet they can be endlessly recombined into new ideas and, by extension, new human activities. If animal tracking and reading do share neurons, it’s only good evidence that we may have other epochal inventions in store for ourselves. Our invention of writing alone has offered such elaborate means for manipulating our experience through symbols that the possible permutations of human experience appear effectively limitless.

With his closing paean to metaphor, Deheane calls Friedrich Nietzsche to this reader’s mind (though probably without meaning to). A “post-structuralist” a good century avant-la-lettre, Nietzsche proposed philosophical problems that shaped many of the critiques of Levi-Strauss’ anthropological project a hundred years later. One of Nietzsche’s most important statements regarding universal human structures comes in a short early essay “On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense.” In an argument reminiscent of Dehaene’s, Nietzsche finds the foundation of language in the the arbitrary association of sensations with sounds, a metaphorical procedure. But Nietzsche’s primary concern is how this process of verbalizing our experience leads to truths, which turn out to be simply metaphors whose origins we have forgotten in adhering to them through habit, without reflection – including by putting them into writing. Such old, venerated metaphors only appear to be decisive, unarguable statements about the world at large exactly because we have since forgotten that they began by recording our all-too-human sensations. Nietzsche calls on us to show the philosophical acumen and moral courage necessary to reveal the metaphors within our truths, and thereby open them back up to further elaboration. Alternatively, we can also seek to replace outworn “truths” with radically new metaphors: new descriptions of experience, new forms of life – in short, with whole new cultural formations. Similarly, what Dehaene in fact provides in this book is a very close and compelling look not just at how we are structured but at how the constraints within the stuctures he describes can add up to a subtle but powerful freedom.

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