Proust and the Squid (2007) tells the fascinating story of how the human brain learned to read. From the invention of the first writing systems to our brain’s amazing capacity to rearrange itself, reading expert Maryanna Wolf explains how the incredible skill of reading developed over the course of human history. That is, how it transforms our brains, thoughts, and culture, and why some of us struggle to learn it.
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Introduction: Discover how reading transforms our brains, thoughts, and culture.
When you sit down to read a book, flip through a magazine, or read a text message on your phone, do you ever stop to consider what an amazing thing the ability to read really is? Somehow, those squiggly little lines on the page – or the screen – magically come alive to form words and sentences. How on earth did our brains learn to do this?
These summaries draw on human history, evolution, and neuroscience to tell the amazing story of how humans first learned to read, how reading restructures our brain, and why some brains struggle to read. They make the case that reading is a crucial part of our development as individuals and as a species, and that everyone deserves the right support to develop this skill.
When you’re finished with these summaries, you will know
- why Mark Twain loathed English spelling;
- what Einstein’s brain tells us about dyslexia; and
- how Socrates foreshadowed today’s tech skepticism.
When humans started writing, our brains rearranged themselves to take on the challenge of reading.
The history of reading is long and complicated, but this much is obvious: our brains learned to read when we began to write.
Of course, it’s hard to pinpoint when exactly humans first invented writing. But it seems that, long before there were any alphabets with different letters representing distinct sounds of a particular language, humans began to record information through visual symbols.
One of the earliest examples can be found in the Blombos Cave in South Africa. There, archeologists have uncovered stones marked with cross-hatched lines they believe to be almost 80,000 years old. In this case, it’s not known what the lines represent, but there are other examples of early human cultures using similarly marked stones, shells, and clay pieces to record economic transactions. So there’s good reason to believe that the lines in the Blombos Cave are not just random scribbles, but carry meaning.
The discovery that you could represent things in the world through abstract symbols, and thereby record events for future generations, was a revolutionary idea. So revolutionary, in fact, that it ended up changing our brains.
The key message here is: When humans started writing, our brains rearranged themselves to take on the challenge of reading.
Our brains are made up of billions of connected nerve cells, or neurons. These neurons have the amazing ability to restructure themselves and form new connections, depending on how we use them. Scientists call this phenomenon “neural plasticity.”
When humans first learned to read, new neural pathways formed in their brains that allowed them to detect and decode intricate visual symbols at rapid speed. If you remember what it was like to learn to read as a child, you will appreciate how powerful this transformation can be. From not knowing what to make of those strange markings on the page, your reading skills soon become so automatic that you can’t not read the words in front of you.
Neuroscientists have shown that, when humans look at unfamiliar, letter-like shapes, we only activate a small part of the visual areas located in the back of our brain. But when we see letters we know, our brain’s activity nearly triples. Not only does it engage more of the visual areas, but it also fires up parts of the brain specialized in language processing, hearing, and abstract concepts.
One of the most important new connections that first formed in our ancestors’ brains as they learned to read was between a part of the back of the brain called the angular gyrus – an area responsible for association – and areas involved in object recognition. This neuronal breakthrough was the basis for some of the first complex writing systems, which we’ll get to know in the following chapters.
The first alphabets revolutionized both our ability to record our thoughts — and our thoughts themselves.
Writing as we know it was invented in different parts of the world several times throughout history.
The Sumerian cuneiform, a writing system composed of wedge-like marks that look a lot like bird tracks, and Egyptian hieroglyphs, are two of the best-studied early writing systems. They originated entirely independently from one another around 3200 BCE in Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt.
Both systems started as tools for administration and accounting. They were initially pictographic, meaning their symbols roughly resembled the things they represented. The Egyptian hieroglyph for “house,” for example, looks like an old Egyptian house seen from above – as the gods would see it. To quickly decipher these pictographs, our brains had to form new pathways between the visual and visual association areas – areas involved in language processing – and the frontal lobes, where higher thinking takes place.
Over time, these two writing systems grew more complex and abstract. By the late Egyptian period, the number of hieroglyphs had skyrocketed from around 700 to several thousand. Some hieroglyphs now also represented both a word, and the first syllable or sound in that word. Because of this complexity, these ancient scripts took several years to master. This was until the ancient Greeks discovered writing could be as easy as ABC.
Here’s the key message: The first alphabets revolutionized both our ability to record our thoughts — and our thoughts themselves.
Around 750 BCE, the ancient Greeks discovered that their language could be broken down into a limited number of sounds and that each sound could be represented by a letter. They were likely inspired by the consonant-based script of the Phoenicians, but they went a step further. The Greek alphabetic system was the first writing system to fully rely on a small number of letter-to-sound correspondences, without mixing in symbols representing words or syllables. This allowed the Greeks to easily record spoken language in all its complexity.
This system had many advantages. First of all, alphabets are economical; most of them use fewer than 26 letters to represent all sounds in their language. This saves our brain energy and effort. It also comes with another advantage: alphabetic writing systems are easier and much quicker to learn than scripts with hundreds or thousands of different characters.
Finally, the alphabetic system allowed humans to record spoken word and unspoken thought in all its complexity. It also allowed us to form completely novel thoughts, never before articulated. For the Greeks, this resulted in an incredibly prolific period of art, culture, science, and politics from around 700 BCE to 600 AD – a period that, thanks to the alphabetic system, we can still read about today in all its glory and complexity.
The foundation for reading is laid early in a child’s life.
If there’s one thing most experts on reading agree on, it’s that there’s no such thing as “too early” when it comes to reading to your child. Long before they understand a single word, children’s brains start preparing them for the formidable task of reading.
The key message here is: The foundation for reading is laid early in a child’s life.
At just six months old, the visual system needed to recognize small symbols like letters is already fully functional.
And at 18 months old, children typically realize that everything around them has its own name.
In the early years that follow, children’s perception, attention, and conceptual systems develop at an incredible speed. That’s why reading to children at this time can have such a significant impact. When you read to young children, their own speech also becomes more sophisticated in the process.
This effect has been demonstrated by numerous studies. In one of them, reading researcher Victoria Purcell-Gates interviewed five-year-olds who had been read to at least five times a week for two years, and compared them to children who had not been read to as much. When asked about their fifth birthdays, the children who had been read to more often, used longer phrases, more complicated syntax, and special “literary” vocabulary, like “once upon a time.”
Unfortunately, the reverse effect is also well-documented. Children who come from language-impoverished homes, in which they were read and talked to little, have sometimes heard up to 32 million fewer words than their peers. As a consequence, they have a significantly smaller vocabulary, and struggle more with learning to read.
Moreover, when children learn early on to connect the shapes on the page to words and stories, they have an easier time learning to read later in life. First, children discover that there can be a one-to-one correspondence between a sound and a symbol. Then, they discover that each letter has a name, such as “p”, and sounds that it represents, such as “puh”. The brains of children who are often read to begin to connect their visual areas to the language areas long before any formal reading education.
And that’s not all! Reading stories of dragons, elves, and princesses to a young child also teaches them to see the world from someone else’s perspective and recognize others’ feelings. Books, in other words, teach us empathy.
The take-away here? Read to your child!
Children move through five stages of reading development, from pre-reader to expert.
Reading researcher Glenda Bissex has many charming stories to tell from when her children learned to read. Once, while she was distracted reading a book, her five-year-old son slipped her a note reading “RUDF.” When she asked what it was supposed to mean, he rolled his eyes. Clearly, he had written “R-U-D-F,” or “Are you deaf?” because she hadn’t reacted to his previous attempts to get her attention.
The key message in this chapter is: Children move through five stages of reading development, from pre-reader to expert.
When children first learn to connect letters and sounds, they enter the first stage, and become pre-readers. During this stage, they often make hilarious mistakes. It’s hard to blame them – not only is it a tough task to tell individual sounds and letters apart in spoken language, but the pronunciation of individual letters can vary a lot. For example, in English, a vowel like “e” can stand for five different sounds, depending on the context.
Consider these lines from a poem by Mark Twain about the pains of learning English spelling:
“Beware of heard, a dreadful wordThat looks like beard and sounds like bird. And dead; it’s said like bed, not beadFor goodness sake, don’t call it deed!”
As children get better at using letters and learn to read easy words and sentences, they become novice readers, the second stage of reading development. Now, they begin to develop a basic understanding of the phonological, orthographic, and semantic principles of a language.
Novice readers often move through a familiar pattern of mistakes. First, they erroneously read words that make sense in context, but don’t actually resemble the word that’s written – like reading “dad” instead of “father” because they expect a book or sentence to use this word. Then, they erroneously read words that are orthographically similar, but don’t fit the context – like reading “horse” as “house,” a mistake an adult reader wouldn’t make. At the end of their novice reader learning journey, they only make errors when words are similar in orthography and context – like reading “bat” instead of “ball.”
Once they learn to avoid these pitfalls, children enter the third stage and become decoding readers. Now, they are able to read words and sentences smoothly. The larger their vocabulary, the faster and more fluent their reading. Instead of spending most of its energy on deciphering letters, their brain has the capacity to activate areas associated with meaning, understanding, and memory.
When reading has become fully automatic and increasingly involves higher levels of thinking, the child has become a fluent, comprehending reader – the fourth stage. The child now reads so well that his brain has ample time to comprehend, infer, and even predict the contents of a text.
The child now has access to millions of parallel universes through books and, as it hones and develops the skill of experiencing the world through reading, it finally it reaches the fifth and last stage and becomes a reading expert.
But this final stage is not a plateau. As we’ll see in the next chapter, our reading skills never stop expanding.
We never stop learning to read.
Once children cross the bridge from decoding to reading expert, whole new worlds await them. Through the power of their reading brains, they are now able to explore the mythical lands of Middle Earth, Narnia, and Hogwarts, where nothing is ever as it seems. But it doesn’t stop there.
The key message here is: We never stop learning to read.
As their reading fluency improves, and their real-life knowledge of the world increases, children unlock more and more features of the text in front of them. As the letter-decoding pathways in the left side of the brain become more efficient, the limbic system – the area of our brain responsible for emotions — becomes heavily involved in the reading process.
In this way, young readers learn to understand irony, metaphors, and different points of view, and start to connect what they’re reading to their own stories, and to the world around them.
It takes such expert readers less than half a second to read a word. And a lot happens during that tiny amount of time.
In the first 100 milliseconds, our brain disengages from other cognitive activities to direct its full attention to the word. The visual system takes in the individual letters, and sends the information down specialized neuronal paths to other parts of our reading memory. Our working memory holds the visual information in our brain for as long as needed, while our association memory retrieves all the things it knows about the visual symbols.
In the next 100 milliseconds, our brain is busy connecting the letters to the sounds they represent, and drawing them together to form a meaningful word.
Finally, in the next 300 milliseconds, our brain retrieves all that it knows about that word: the meaning it has in context, but also all its other possible meanings, and any other knowledge we might have about the word.
The more we read, the faster the decoding part becomes, and the more time we have to engage in the last part of the reading process – thinking about the word.
Of course, as we age, we also bring more knowledge and life experience to the texts we’re reading. If you’re an avid reader, you’ve probably experienced how rereading a book at a later stage in your life can completely change your perception of it.
When it comes to reading, we never stop learning.
Dyslexia has many different types and potential causes in the brain.
What do Leonardo Da Vinci, Thomas Edison, and Albert Einstein have in common? They were all dyslexic.
Einstein often talked about his terrible memory for written text, and once admitted that words “did not seem to play any role” in his theoretical thinking.
But despite his well-documented trouble with words, Einstein, just like Edison and Da Vinci, was never diagnosed with dyslexia. The curious condition, often referred to as “word blindness,” was first recognized by German researcher Adolph Kussmaul in 1870, and took a while to become universally recognized.
The key message in this chapter is: Dyslexia has many different types and potential causes in the brain.
One reason for its late discovery, and for the fact that there’s still no universally accepted definition of it, is that dyslexia takes many different forms. The three most common subtypes found in the English language revolve around problems with matching letters and sounds, problems with reading fluency, and problems with both of those things. Still, around 10% of people with reading difficulties can’t be neatly sorted into any of these categories.
Similarly, when looking at the research of the last hundred years, many different possible causes of dyslexia in the brain have been suggested, some of which build on each other.
The first one is a flaw in the basic structures of the brain involved in reading – the visual and auditory systems, for example. Kussmaul proposed this theory after studying a French businessman called “Monsieur X.” After suffering two strokes that first damaged his visual system, and then the part of the brain relaying information from the visual system to the language areas, Monsieur X lost his ability to read.
The second possible cause of dyslexia is an inability of the brain to achieve the processing speed required for reading. Research has shown that, for dyslexic people, there seems to be a “gap in time” in communication between their visual, auditory, and motor systems. For example, dyslexics are generally slower at naming random colors and objects presented to them. They are also often a beat behind when asked to tap out a rhythm with their fingers.
One reason for the lags in communication could be a lack of connection between the different brain regions. In the 19th century, neurologist Carl Wernicke described dyslexia as a “disconnexion syndrome” that affected either the visual-verbal or the visual-auditory systems.
These possible deficits mean that the dyslexic brain has to come up with different ways of reading. Modern brain imaging confirms that dyslexics seem to use a very different brain circuitry for reading than non-dyslexic people. In the next chapter, we will see just how different the brains of dyslexics might be – and why that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
People with dyslexia may have other talents, not in spite but because of their different brain structure.
In spite of how we talk about it, dyslexia is not actually a “reading disorder.” It can’t be, because the human brain was never actually meant to read. As we learned in the last chapter, whatever prevents a dyslexic brain from learning to read must be caused by some variation in its deeper, more basic structures.
But how does the different wiring of dyslexics affect their other skills?
The key message in this chapter is: People with dyslexia may have other talents, not in spite but because of their different brain structure.
Da Vinci, Edison, and Einstein weren’t the only dyslexic geniuses in history. There’s also Antonio Gaudi, the Spanish architect famous for his surreal, colorful buildings. Then there’s pop artist Andy Warhol, actor Johnny Depp, and philanthropist Charles Schwab, to name just a few.
Could it be that these people’s inventiveness and creativity stem from the same underlying brain differences that cause dyslexia?
So far, there is no conclusive proof for this theory, but some interesting findings point in this direction.
In the 1960s and 70s, pioneering neurologist Norman Geschwind found that dyslexia is often connected with unusual speech and motor patterns, difficulties with coordinating movements and emotional issues on the one hand, but also remarkable spatial and visual talents on the other. The reason for this could be that dyslexics use their two brain hemispheres more symmetrically. In most people, the so-called planum temporale, a brain area involved in processing language, is larger in the left hemisphere than in the right. But in dyslexics, the planum temporale is the same size in both hemispheres. Dyslexics demonstrate a preference for right brain circuits in a variety of other tasks, too.
The author has come to suspect that this right-brain dominance is why people with dyslexia seem to have a talent for larger visual pattern recognition. From her own casual observation, she finds that dyslexics tend to gravitate towards fields such as design, radiology, or high finance, where an ability to spot and interpret larger patterns is important.
Though dyslexia is a well-recognized condition today, we’re still not doing everything we can to make sure that dyslexics receive the right support to develop their other skills. Children with dyslexia are still often diagnosed too late or not at all, and get left behind by their peers and educators. As a consequence, society might miss out on some amazing talent.
That’s why it’s critical that parents and educators pay attention to a child’s potential reading problems, and make sure that they receive immediate, intensive intervention to overcome them.
The skill of reading is an important part of our personal and cultural development, and we must do our best to preserve it.
When the ancient Greeks first started writing, not everyone was happy about it. Famous philosopher Socrates, who lived in ancient Greece right around the time writing became popular, rejected the new technology outright. He feared that writing would make human thought more inflexible, corrupt our memory, and fool us into taking all written information for granted. Interestingly, these are pretty much the same arguments that critics make about the internet today.
This brings us to the following question: What happens to our reading brains in the digital age, when we have vast amounts of information at our fingertips and text is more dynamic and changeable than ever before? Will technology unlock whole new features of our brain? Or will it make us unlearn some of the very skills that helped create it?
The key message in this chapter is: The skill of reading is an important part of our personal and cultural development, and we must do our best to preserve it.
There’s no reason to be overly alarmist. Just remember how skeptical Socrates was of writing, and how droll his concerns seem today!
But the measurable decline in attention spans, memory, and verbal SAT scores cautions us that the new way of reading, brought about mainly by the internet, might come at a cost. As we move into a new era, it won’t hurt to remind ourselves what we gained from learning to read – both as a species and as individuals – and try to carry those assets into the future.
Writing allowed us to preserve spoken word and unspoken thought, and carry it across time and space. It allowed us to access other people’s thoughts and experiences in a completely new way, and released brain space used for memory to perform more complex cognitive operations. It became the basis for much of our intellectual and cultural development.
Time is perhaps the most crucial aspect of old-school reading we should preserve. In our digital age, time can seem like a scarce resource. But time is what makes the difference between merely understanding the basic meaning of a text, and going beyond the text to connect it more intimately with our own ideas, experience, and knowledge.
It’s our responsibility to make sure that every child — whether dyslexic or not — is given the right tools to unlock the secret of reading, and all its powerful implications for intellectual and personal development.
The key message in these summaries:
Reading is not a natural act for humans. It took our species a long time to develop writing systems as we know them today, and our brains had to undergo big changes in order to read them. That’s why learning to read is still a long and sometimes difficult process for children – especially if they suffer from dyslexia. But reading has the power to change our brains, thoughts, and our culture, so we should do everything in our power to make sure everyone has the opportunity to learn it.
About the author
Maryanne Wolf, the John DiBiaggio Professor of Citizenship and Public Service at Tufts University, was the director of the Tufts Center for Reading and Language Research. She currently directs the Center for Dyslexia, Diverse Learners, and Social Justice at UCLA, and is working with the Dyslexia Center at the UCSF School of Medicine and with Curious Learning: A Global Literacy Project, which she co-founded. She is the recipient of multiple research and teaching honors, including the highest awards by the International Dyslexia Association and the Australian Learning Disabilities Association. She is the author of Proust and the Squid (HarperCollins), Tales of Literacy for the 21st Century (Oxford University Press), and more than 160 scientific publications.