Reading in the brain and spotting things in the wild

I wish I had more time to write about the really interesting book Reading in the Brain: the science and evolution of a human invention by Stanislas Dehaene. It isn’t a new book, I believe it came out in 2009, but if you are interested in reading as a cognitive ability, or have an interest in dyslexia or are generally interested in the workings of the brain, I would recommend this book. I believe the author is an important researcher, and thus is highly qualified to write this book, which sets him apart from many other authors of popular science and popular psychology books. Dehaene identifies and solves the great mystery of reading. According to my understanding of this book,  reading is generally processed in the same parts of the brain for all readers, so it appears that these parts of the brain have evolved to be specialized for reading. But this is not possible – humans have only had writing symbols and reading for a very recent time in the history of our species. Dehaene solves this mystery, and you can read about this solution in this book.

I especially like this book because within it I have found the answers to a number of mysteries that I have been wondering about for a long time. Is there a link between the synaesthesia and the above-average reading abilities of some members of my family? It appears that the answer is “yes”. Brain hyperconnectivity is the best explanation of the physical basis of synaesthesia, and Dehaene explains in his book  that “a “bushy” vision of the brain, with several functions that operate in parallel, has replaced the early serial model” of how the brain operates, and this bushy model is very applicable to reading. Synaesthetes have brains that are bushy, at least in some regions, and reading requires a bushy brain. We should therefore not be surprised if at least some types of synaesthesia  (there are certainly different types) are associated with superior or precocious reading ability. The descriptions of research on the visual processing of objects and faces in monkeys that can be found in chapter three of the book are particularly interesting to me because they seem to be a description of the neural basis of some unusual aspects of The Strange Phenomenon, the great mystery that inspired me to start this blog.

In this book I found striking pictorial explanation of why there seems to be a link between reading ability and face reading ability in our family. When I saw in Figure 2.6 of that book on page 74 the way that the regions in the underside of the brain that are specialized to detect objects, written words, faces and “houses” are situated right next-door to each other and overlap, I was pretty amazed and knew this explained a lot about the abilities of myself and some of my kin. We must have an unusual level of development in this region, which I guess must be the fusiform gyrus, but isn’t given a label in the book. This overlap of brain areas specialized for faces and “houses” would explain why prosopagnosia and agnosia for scenes appear to be often found together. I believe that it also indicates that there could be a link between reading ability and face recognition ability, at least in some people. At the website for this book this figure is labelled as Figure 2.1 and can be viewed here:

This is a quote from the caption to Figure 2.6: “Reading always activates an area located between the peak responses to faces and to objects”. I think this would explain why we have advanced readers and also a person who is unusually good at reading and recognizing faces in our family. I think it also could explain some of our childhood hobbies. When I was a child I had one of those hobbies that involves spotting, inspecting, evaluating and collecting found objects from natural environments. This was a highly visual hobby (and also quite tactile), and it was a wonderful thing because it was a pathway towards a great love of nature and a fascination with science and biology. It was also good for fresh air, sunshine and exercise, things that the lifestyles of kids seem to lack these days. One of our kids also had a keen childhood hobby that also involved an element of seeing and identifying different types of objects within the same category. The difference was that these objects were technological, not natural, and are way too big and expensive to collect. All the same, it could be described as a “spotting” hobby, like trainspotting, birdspotting etc. There is a link between “spotting” type hobbies or skills and face recognition, because both face recognition and “within-category identification” are done in the fusiform gyrus. I’m not sure where it was that I read that some study found that car salesmen were found to use the same part of the brain as is used for face recognition when they were given the task of identifying motor vehicles, an area of professional expertise for this group.

Why do people have “spotting” hobbies that are not directly useful? Why has natural selection resulted in people who like to do apparently useless actvities such as looking at trains or collecting shells? It isn’t too hard to think of an explanation in terms of evolutionary adaptations. The ability to visually spot, identify and pursue or avoid objects (animals, vegetable foodstuffs) in natural environments was probably one of the most essential skills that a caveman/cavelady could have had, to find food and to avoid being food for some larger animal. It would be a big ask to expect that modern humans should completely break this habit that has most certainly been highly selected for in the human gene pool.

Today just out of curiosity I picked a few berries off a Rhagodia baccata plant during my morning walk (I like to know the proper scientific names of certain categories of things), and the berries tasted truly dreadful, but a bit sweet. The taste was almost as horrible as the taste of the native quandong fruit, which is regarded by some as a type of food. I’m certainly glad that I don’t have to rely on my prehistoric food-gathering skills.


Dehaene, Stanislas Reading in the Brain: the science and evolution of a human invention. Viking, 2009. 

Full-colour figures from this wonderful book:

Wikipedia contributors Fusiform gyrus. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

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