How We Read

What we know about how we learn to read and how our ability to read developed is fascinating, and in a review of a book that looks at exactly this — Stanislas Dehaene’s Reading in the Brain — Jonah Lehrer offers us a wonderful teaser on exactly that: the hows of reading, from a neuroscience perspective.

The introduction:

Right now, your mind is performing an astonishing feat. Photons are bouncing off these black squiggles and lines — the letters in this sentence — and colliding with a thin wall of flesh at the back of your eyeball. The photons contain just enough energy to activate sensory neurons, each of which is responsible for a particular plot of visual space on the page. The end result is that, as you stare at the letters, they become more than mere marks on a page. You’ve begun to read.

Seeing the letters, of course, is just the start of the reading process. […] The real wonder is what happens next. Although our eyes are focused on the letters, we quickly learn to ignore them. Instead, we perceive whole words, chunks of meaning. […] In fact, once we become proficient at reading, the precise shape of the letters — not to mention the arbitrariness of the spelling — doesn’t even matter, which is why we read word, WORD, and WoRd the same way.

Later in the review, Lehrer’s description of what it is like to suffer from pure alexia reads like something taken directly from Oliver Sacks‘ essential and eye-opening book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.

via Mind Hacks