"Ik men meijn eigen brein" (Me with my own brain) by the Belgian artist Jan Fabre
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"Ik men meijn eigen brein" (Me with my own brain) by the Belgian artist Jan Fabre

The nature-versus-nurture debate is an old one. It stands to reason that extremism on either side is likely to be misguided. The mind is not a blank slate. But nor are we born with fully intact cognitive, linguistic and social capacities. What we do, as individuals, and as members of society, depends on our make up. But it also depends on the landscapes where we find ourselves and the resources available. What is striking is the remarkable degree to which we — all living beings — make it so. We change the world around us through our own actions, and this in turn brings about changes in our own internal organization.

As a case in point, consider reading.

We now know that reading is only possible thanks to the existence of dedicated neural structures in the brain. This is supported by a remarkable convergence of data from psychology, medicine, and the experimental neurosciences, deploying a wide range of different methodologies (single cell recordings of epilepsy patients) and imaging techniques (PET, fMRI, EEG, MEG, etc). The upshot is that all readers, regardless of whether they are reading English, French, Chinese, Hebrew or Swahili — and regardless of whether they are reading on a computer display, an iPad, a movie screen, or from the page of a book — show identical patterns of neural activation.

This reading area of the brain — what Stanislas Dehaene calls "the brain's letterbox" (located on the edge of the left occipito-temporal fissure) in his excellent new book devoted to this topic— lights up for grammatical words in the reader's language, and does not light up for meaningless combinations of letters or for numerical strings. Moreover, it is known that damage to the structures necessary for this activation, or in supporting structures, brings about distinctive and reading-specific deficits.

What makes this remarkable — Dehaene speaks of the paradox of reading — is that reading is a cultural practice of recent invention. Whereas it is likely that human beings have been talking and singing for some 75,000 years (give or take 25,000 years), we are pretty certain that writing is at most a few thousand years old.

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