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