The Neuroscience Of Reading

Stanislas Dehaene, chair of Experimental Cognitive Psychology at the Collège de France, gives his view of the brain:

What I am proposing is that the human brain is a much more constrained organ than we think, and that it places strong limits on the range of possible cultural forms. Essentially, the brain did not evolve for culture, but culture evolved to be learnable by the brain. Through its cultural inventions, humanity constantly searched for specific niches in the brain, wherever there is a space of plasticity that can be exploited to “recycle” a brain area and put it to a novel use. Reading, mathematics, tool use, music, religious systems -- all might be viewed as instances of cortical recycling.

On how the brain processes letters:

A fascinating discovery, made by the American researcher Marc Changizi, is that all of the world's writing systems use the same set of basic shapes, and that these shapes are already a part of the visual system in all primates, because they are also useful for coding natural visual scenes. The monkey brain already contains neurons that preferentially respond to an “alphabet” of shapes including T, L, Y. We merely “recycle” these shapes (and the corresponding part of cortex) and turn them into a cultural code for language.