Reading in the Brain by Stanislas Dehaene

A book published by Penguin Viking, November 2009

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How can a few black marks on a white page evoke an entire universe of sounds and meanings? In this riveting investigation, renowned cognitive neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene provides a highly accessible description of the brain circuitry at work behind reading. He sheds light on the main issues related to the “reading paradox” -- our cortex is the outcome of millions of years of evolution in a world without writing, so why can it adapt to the specific challenges posed by written word recognition? Stanislas Dehaene proposes a powerful “neuronal recycling” hypothesis, which postulates that cultural inventions invade evolutionarily older brain circuits, and while doing so inherit many of their structural constraints.

Reading in the Brain also describes groundbreaking research on how the brain processes languages. It reveals the hidden logic of spelling and the existence of powerful unconscious mechanisms for decoding words of any size, case, or font.

This is a book for everyone. It is eye-opening and will fascinate not only readers interested in science and culture, but educators concerned with the contested issues of how we learn to read, and of pathologies like dyslexia. Like Steven Pinker, Dehaene argues that the mind is not a blank slate: writing systems across all cultures rely on the same brain circuitry, and reading is only possible insofar as it fits within the limits of a primate brain. Setting cutting-edge science in the context of cultural debate, Reading in the Brain is an unparalleled guide to a uniquely human capability.

Advanced praise for Reading in the brain

"We are fortunate that Stanislas Dehaene, the leading authority on the neuroscience of language, is also a beautiful writer. His Reading in the Brain brings together the cognitive, the cultural, and the neurological in an elegant, compelling narrative. It is a revelatory work."
--Oliver Sacks, author of The man who mistook his wife for a hat

“In a moment when knowledge about the reading brain may be the key to its preservation, Stanislas Dehaene's book provides the next critical rung of that knowledge. He does this through insights gained from his own prolific research, through his comprehensive grasp of the neurosciences, and through his unique combination of common sense and wisdom that shines through every chapter.”
—Maryanne Wolf, author of “Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain”

“Stanislas Dehaene takes us on a journey into the science of reading. We travel past firing neurons in monkeys, brain activation patterns in humans, people with brain damage, and culture as a whole. It's a proactive and enjoyable synthesis of a tremendous amount of information, with just the right balance between getting the facts right and making them accessible to lay readers.”
—Joseph LeDoux, University Professsor NYU, author of Synaptic Self and The Emotional Brain.

“In this beautifully illustrated volume, Dehaene brilliantly synthesizes what is known about how the brain works when we read. In doing so he integrates cognitive neuroscience, cultural, evolutionary and neurpsychological investigations and illuminates the brain's amazing ability to adapt to the inventions of culture and technology.”
—Michael Posner, Professor Emeritus University of Oregon, Adjunct Professor Weill Medical College

Reading in the Brain isn’t just about reading. It comes nearer than anything I have encountered to explaining how humans think, and does so with a simple elegance that can be grasped by scientists and nonscientists alike. Dehaene provides insight about the neurological underpinnings of the spectacular cognitive skills that characterize our species. Students of human evolution are not the only ones who will find Reading in the Brain fascinating. Parents, educators, and anyone else who nurtures the intellectual development of children cannot afford to ignore Dehaene’s observations about the best methods for teaching them to read!”
—Dean Falk, author of Finding our Tongues: Mothers, Infants, and the Origins of Language

“The complicated partnership of eye and mind that transforms printed symbols into sound, music, and meaning, and gives rise to thought, is the subject of this intriguing study. It’s a wondrous journey: like that of stout Cortez, like H.M. Stanley’s search for Dr. David Livingstone, like the next stunning probe into outer space.”
—Howard Engel, co-author of The Man Who Forgot How to Read

“The transparent and automatic feat of reading comprehension disguises an intricate biological effort, ably analyzed in this fascinating study. Drawing on scads of brain-imaging studies, case histories of stroke victims and ingenious cognitive psychology experiments, cognitive neuroscientist Dehaene (The Number Sense) diagrams the neural machinery that translates marks on paper into language, sound and meaning. (...)
This lively, lucid treatise proves once again that Dehaene is one of our most gifted expositors of science; he makes the workings of the mind less mysterious, but no less miraculous.”
—Publishers Weekly, 8/17/2009

Dense with ideas and experiments, but richly rewarding for readers willing to put in the effort.

Reviews of Reading in the brain

Barnes and Noble Review by Jonah Lehrer:
"Fascinating... By studying the wet stuff inside our head, we can begin to understand why this sentence has this structure, and why this letter, this one right here, has its shape."

Scientific American: Your Brain on Books, interview by Gareth Cook
"Neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene explains his quest to understand how the mind makes sense of written language"

Washington Post: Humanity's greatest invention, review by Susan Okie
"In this fascinating and scholarly book, French neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene explains what scientists now know about how the human brain performs the feat of reading"

Wall Street Journal: Information Please, review by Christopher Chabris
"A pleasure to read"
"At its best, science takes what seems simple and commonplace—something we take for granted — and shows us how complicated and wondrous it really is. (...) In his splendid "Reading in the Brain," French neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene reveals how decades of low-tech experiments and high-tech brain-imaging studies have unwrapped the mystery of reading and revealed its component parts."

The Age article: It's offishal - English iz darned hard to lurn
"a world leader in the science behind reading"

A.V. Club Review by Samantha Nelson
"Filled with fascinating information... Requires focus to read, but rewards the effort"

Click here for chapter summaries and color figures