Rise of the 'Digital Brain': Books and Computers Shape It Differently

By Putney, Margaret | Science & Spirit, November-December 2007 | Go to article overview

Rise of the 'Digital Brain': Books and Computers Shape It Differently


Putney, Margaret, Science & Spirit


MARYANNE WOLF is professor of child development at Tufts University and director of the Center for Reading and Language Research. A developmental psycholinguist, she works in cognitive neuroscience with a focus on dyslexia and other reading disabilities. Her new book, Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, explores how reading shapes the brain. The book also explores how "digital" reading on computers may make a difference in brain development. Science & Spirit's Margaret Putney asked her about her research findings.

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Q Does the study of dyslexia in the brain help you understand how the brain works in general?

A Oh, it helps me immensely. If we understand what the typical brain has to do, and then see how the dyslexic brain doesn't do that very efficiently, we can use a process of sub traction to find the [brain] areas that may need intervention. We definitely want the children with dyslexia to learn to read! But the task is to find the most efficient way to teach them, and to help them enjoy it, so they gain the same insights and pleasure that we do. Once I better understood the reading brain, I could develop an intervention program for dyslexia. The reading program is based on simulating what the brain does when it reads and what areas it uses. We're trying to teach children how to use those areas. Neuroscience is terribly intertwined with this, of course. The dyslexic brain has taught me about the great diversity of human brains and is one of the best sources of evidence that our brains were never "wired to read."

Q How did you start your work on the reading brain?

A Seven years ago I had a sabbatical and I realized that it would take one or two sabbaticals and all my summers to try to get through all the bodies of knowledge related to how the human species learned to read. There is no one body of knowledge, so I looked at everything from archeology and linguistics and child development to cognitive neuroscience, which is my area of work. This question of the evolving brain spans so much material. There are many influences. I'm not saying the brain changed its actual parts. There's not enough time in our evolution to do that. What I am saying is that the learning of reading literally changed the circuitry of our brain by rearranging its existing parts.

Q So reading reorganizes what's already there?

A Exactly. The organization was changed. The brain is being organized any time we become experts in something. But reading in general is particularly unique for how it shows the brain's plasticity. We have a whole new arrangement of the parts. When you study how reading occurs in different writing systems, you can see this adaptability. For example, the Chinese brain is somewhat different in the parts that it uses. It uses more of the visual areas. The English language uses more of those areas critical for the analysis of sound. Once you see how the brain operates under these different writing systems, you sec there can be multiple arrangements, and ho-,v writing very concretely shapes circuits in our brain.

Q What are the benefits of strengthening those reading; parts of the brain?

A If you look at the history of writing along with the historical development of most major disciplines of knowledge, they, of course, go hand in hand. Literacy improved our ability to preserve knowledge, categorize it, analyze it, and then organize it as a platform for further knowledge in those areas. …

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