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Stanislas Dehaene: Reading In The Brain

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Reading In The Brain: The Science And Evolution Of A Human Invention is a lot like the organ the book discusses: While it’s filled with fascinating information, it can be discouragingly difficult to understand. Author Stanislas Dehaene, a French cognitive neuroscientist, intended his book to be accessible, a way to present the public with the research he and his colleagues have done on the unlikely invention of literacy. His goal is to understand how humans are capable of the complex processing required for reading and writing, since human brains should have needed millions of years to evolve to the task. While some of his ideas are still unproven theories, he presents detailed evidence for his underlying principle: that reading was adapted to the limits of primate brains. The book goes on to discuss what understanding those restrictions can teach us about language, education, and reading disorders like dyslexia.

Unfortunately, he needs to lay a lot of groundwork. This makes the first 100 pages of the book an excruciating slog. While it picks up after the first two chapters, the book still sometimes slips back into detailed explanations of neurophysiology. Dehaene is first and foremost an academic, and he seems to want to make his work defensible to his peers even as he tries to explain it to laymen. This is especially problematic in his diagrams. Rather than helping to clarify points, his visual presentations are almost always overly technical, presenting formulas and pictures of the brain that are difficult to decipher. Part of the problem is that images are all black-and-white. While he offers up full color versions on the book’s website, that’s only useful to readers who are also regularly consulting their computers.


The book is at its best when it directly addresses readers, asking them to perform exercises such as seeing how fast they can read a sentence with too much spacing between letters. These help make his points not just understandable but personal, inspiring a sense of wonder at the complexity at the task readers are performing just by scanning from page to page.

Along with calls for linguistic and education reform, the book provides nuggets of humor by presenting bizarre facts found in his research, including a brain study which found that one patient had a neuron that only responded to information about Jennifer Aniston. Dehaene also provides tips for everyday life, advising readers to ignore products claiming to help multiply reading speeds, since that’s physically impossible. The result is a work that requires focus to read, but rewards the effort.