Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

“An Artificial and Most Complicated World”: Reading and Writing the Brain

Hannah Silverblank's picture

“From the very start, the brain’s capacity for making new connections shows itself… as regions originally designed for other functions – particularly vision, motor, and multiple aspects of language – learn to interact with increasing speed. By the time a child is seven or eight, the beginning decoding brain illustrates both how much the young brain accomplishes and how far we have evolved… These three major distribution regions will be the foundation across all phases of reading for basic decoding, even though an increasing fluency… adds an interesting caveat to the unfolding portrait of the reading brain.” (1)

-Maryanne Wolf


“And out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof. And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field." (2)

-Genesis 2:19-20


According to Paul Auster, “Adam’s one task in the Garden [of Eden] had been to invent language, to give each creature and thing its name. In that state of innocence, his tongue had gone straight to the quick of the world” (3). Adam’s prelapsarian act of naming represents not just the recognition and attribution of word to object, but rather the restructuring, reordering and reassembly that occurs within each brain as it practices language. Adam’s process resembles the development which occurs in the brain of a child when the mind embarks upon the journey to comprehend and generate language. In her book entitled Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, Maryanne Wolf argues, “naming objects and then naming letters represent the first two chapters of the modern, rearranged literate brain” (1). While Adam himself may not have made it to the lesson on spelling in Chapter Two, we can see that the linguistic engagements that frame the history of Humanity – from Adamic naming and Socrates’ oral dialogues to the worlds of Wikipedia and text messaging – enact complex neurobiological processes that might enhance and illuminate the world of reading. In this essay, I plan to demonstrate the way that the brain becomes acquainted with language and literacy, the consequences of the neurobiological understanding of reading, and the ways that text and mind interact with and complement one another.

Maryanne Wolf articulates the cognitive tiers that the young brain must reach on the path to literacy, beginning with the recognition of visual patterns. These patterns, which may first become evident to a child in the familiar image of a parent’s face or a favorite pacifier, pave the way for the next tier of literacy development: naming. Naming, an acquired and constructed concept, usually emerges in children at the age of eighteen months. According to Wolf, children take on Adam’s activity when “the brain’s ability to connect two or more systems to make something new” appears. The crucial link between “vision, cognition, and language” is followed by the development of vocabulary, which the young brain cultivates into a repository of approximately ten thousand words by the age of five (1).

The next and seemingly most complex step in the move toward literacy is the brain’s “syntactic development.” This kind of development is the most connective and interrelated, because it sets words into models of interaction such as causality, relativity, and result. The statement “Damien felt tired, so he decided to take the day off from work to rest” requires complex cognitive skills and imaginative projection in order to be understood: the listener/reader of the statement is asked to understand that Damien had his own feelings and state-of-being (“tired”) – feelings which are distinct from the reader’s – and that he took an action as a result of his feelings. Once the perceiver of the sentence understands that Damien’s exhaustion triggered his absence from work, the perceiver then must make the leap toward causality and purpose, in order to understand that Damien stayed home from work in order that he might “rest” and counteract his current feeling of being “tired.” While these concepts may seem obvious and intuitive to a mature reader, the relationships of ideas within the sentence require a set of acquired and artificial skills.

The development of syntax illuminates for the brain the ways in which a system of variables (words) can be manipulated, and how these variables can engage and relate to one another through word order and endings such as “-s,” “-ed,” and “-ing,” in the English language.

Beyond allowing young minds to witness the ways in which ideas and parts of speech can relate to one another, stories and tales can “convey feelings that go with words” (1). Wolf describes the early processing of stories as a means by which children acquire “the ability to take on someone else’s perspective” and to emerge from the “egocentric” phase (1). Reading thus allows the young brain to wear different shoes – or wigs? – and to practice “beginning to learn a repertoire of emotions” (1). For Wolf, then, the connections between “emotional development and reading” are essential: it is not enough to allow children to develop socially and emotionally through empirical practice, but we should rather use fiction as an imaginary template for empathy, interaction, and society.

Because human language functions as a code of associations, a look at adult brain activity during parts of the reading process can help us locate and understand the connections we enable through linguistic communication. Through experiments that chart the brain activation in response to certain stimuli, we can see that the left middle temporal region is our neurophysiological bastion of the meaning of words. Stanislas Dehaene cites an experiment in which the subjects read the words “couch” and “sofa,” whose meanings are generally considered interchangeable to the average twenty-first century English speaker. Dehaene writes that “Joe Devlin and his collaborators,” the masters of this experiment, noticed that the left middle temporal region is the only region that “recognized the similarity between [the two words] in spite of their superficial difference” (4). The duration of the activity of the left middle temporal region also suggests that the reading of “sofa” and “couch” are parallel processes, since “this area was activated less by two synonyms than by two words with unrelated meanings, such as ‘honey’ and ‘couch,’ suggesting that it was active for longer when it had to encode two different meanings, but synonyms only activated it once” (4). Furthermore, Devlin’s experiment helps indicate that the “ventral regions of the left temporal lobe” function as something called a “letterbox,” or a literal reader. This area of the brain primarily engages the sequence and patterns of letters themselves. Where the temporal region can ‘relax’ when reading synonymous words like “couch” and “sofa,” the ventral region requires less activation for groups of words with literal similarities, like “slackened” and “blackened,” despite their very divergent definitions.

This networking of meaning in the temporal lobe is “not limited to simply processing simple words” (4), but also functions as an interpretive aid in reading and hearing sentences and complex syntactical arrangements. In the frontal area of the temporal lobe, these regions generate the multiple possibilities of meaning that the clause or sentence could suggest. In an ambiguous and slightly ungrammatical sentence like “I know a way home that is correct,” the frontal temporal lobe would house the multiple semantic possibilities of this statement (such as “I know a way to our correct house” vs. “I know a correct way home” vs. “I know a way home. That’s right”). After these possibilities are generated within the front temporal lobe, a region “farther forward in the inferior frontal cortex” rereads the choices and chooses the best, most preferable, or most reliable of the possibilities.

This geographic distinction between brain functions might yield interesting results in terms of charting the neurobiological activity that occurs in reading certain texts, especially in children’s literature and poetry. In the same way that music can be rendered in maps and graphs that measure sound frequency, a chart that can chronicle the location of brain activity in certain word groups would be a fascinating way to see the physical impact of poetry on the brain.

For example, a certain line of poetry, whose language is layered and ambiguous, might hold a deeper position than simply maintaining a “problematic” or “complex” effect: it could stimulate the inferior frontal cortex into a position of confusion, or at least some kind of “stretching” beyond its normal duty. For example, in Homer’s Odyssey, Alkinoos tells his daughter Nausicaa, “οὔτε τοι ἡμιόνων φθονέω, τέκος, οὔτε τευ ἄλλου” (Neither shall I deny you of mules, child, nor of anything else”) (5). To the careful Greek listener, this line can be charged with both humor and the idea of imminent marriage, since the gender of “τευ ἄλλου” (“anything else”) is indistinguishable. The translation above treats the gender of “τευ ἄλλου” as neuter, but the same ending could also be treated as a masculine ending. In this case, Alkinoos would be telling Nausicaa, “Neither shall I deny you of mules, child, nor of some man.” In this case, I wonder how the inferior frontal cortex of an Ancient Greek mind would respond: Alkinoos’ claim is subtler than just a word play with a double-meaning, since its desired effect is uncertain. Dehaene suggests that the challenge is great for this region of the brain upon encountering similarly ambiguous headlines like “Include Your Children When Baking Cookies.” “Think of how desperately these brain areas must search for a stable state…!” he implores his readers (4).

Furthermore, this mapping of activity can also indicate to authors of children’s literature methods toward crafting the most intellectually stimulating, memorable, and educational limericks and lessons. These experiments that offer a glimpse into the neural activities of reading might, additionally, reinvigorate studies of literature. There’s no singular answer to questions like “Why do we read?” and “Why do fictions and fictional characters affect us emotionally?”, but research like Devlin’s can begin to offer insight into the impulse toward reading. Since the engagement of language and literature is an acquired activity of humans, it would be impossible to trace an innate biological impulse toward fictionalization and reading; however, since the development of language and text has so powerfully rocked the development and character of the human brain, the output that is language can return to the brain as an input that expects a biological response.

In an interview about the invention of new languages, Arika Okrent (author of In the Land of Invented Languages) explicates the much agreed-upon idea that “For many, the act of language inventing is a mind-stretching exercise in imagining possible worldviews” (6). Because the alphabetical and syntactical frameworks of a language both limit and characterize the capacities for thought (i.e., in English, we assume that individuals can perform actions upon other objects or individuals through our establishment of subject, verb, and direct object conceptions), our languages function as the literal vocabulary with which we can establish ideas. For example, the French phrase esprit d'escalier (“stairway wit”/ “stairway thoughts”, or the retorts or remarks one generates too late) suggests that the persona of the French language might influence or limit the minds of French-speakers, and vice-versa. In the short story “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” written by Jorge Luis Borges, the author depicts a society whose language speaks directly to its worldview and whose worldview directly engages its language. Borges writes,


“For the people of Tlon, the world is not an amalgam of objects in space; it is a heterogeneous series of independent acts – the world is successive, temporal, but not spatial. There are no nouns in the conjectural Ursprache of Tlon, from which its “present-day” languages and dialects derive: there are impersonal verbs, modified by monosyllabic suffixes (or prefixes) function as adverbs. For example, there is no noun that corresponds to our word ‘moon,’ but there is a verb which in English would be ‘to moonate’ or ‘to enmoon’” (7).


Here Borges delivers an example of how the language enacts a philosophy of mind, but he later characterizes an interest contradiction that is legible in English but nearly incomprehensible within the Tlonian mentality. On this contradiction, the narrator writes, “The language of Tlon resisted formulating this paradox; most people did not understand it” (7). Thus, Borges’ imaginary society aptly describes the ways in which language both contains and constrains the impressions and expressions of thought.

If, as we have learned from Dehaene, the reading and verbalization of language instigates specific patterns of neural activity, the brain of a Tlonian retains a fundamentally different character and orientation in its network than that of a bilingual speaker of French and German. When Boa Sr, the last living member of the 65,000-year-old Andamanese tribe – the Bo – died in February 2010, she took with her the end of the Bo language, and consequently, the mental orientation that the Bo tribe had inherited from its history, society, and also from its language. And as my mind deviates back and forth from its literary engagement in the contemporary Digital-Speak of Facebook, Twitter, and text messaging to the texts of Cicero, Plautus, and Homer, I feel awkwardly distant from Socrates – who shunned the recording of language – but also triumphant in the unlikely patterns of activation that I have subconsciously set into discourse within my own neural passages.



  1. Maryanne Wolf, Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2007).
  2. “Genesis 2:19,” Accessed 3 April 2010.
  3. Paul Auster, “City of Glass” in The New York Trilogy (New York: Penguin Group, 1985).
  4. Stanislas Dehaene, Reading in the Brain: The Science and Evolution of a Human Invention (New York: Viking Publishing, 2009).
  5. Homer, The Odyssey of Homer (Los Angeles: Macmillan, 1967).
  6. “Questions Answered: Invented Languages,” Schott’s Vocab from Written 10 March 2010, 6:20 am. Accessed 3 April 2010.
  7. Jorge Luis Borges, “Tlon, Uqbar, Tertius Orbis,” Collected Fictions (New York: Penguin Books, 1998). Translated by Andrew Hurley.




Paul Grobstein's picture

literature and the brain: new perspectives on reading/writing

"a certain line of poetry ... could stimulate the inferior frontal cortex into a position of confusion, or at least some kind of “stretching” beyond its normal duty."

"I feel awkwardly distant from Socrates ... but also triumphant in the unlikely patterns of activation that I have subconsciously set into discourse within my own neural passages."

I have the sense here of a serious alternative to the ways most people think about reading and language, as a way of sharing particular information and ideas.  You seem to be suggesting that instead (or in addition?) language serves the function of creating "confusion" and so producing "patterns of activation" (thoughts?) that might not otherwise have occurred?  Along these lines, an ongoing conversation on World Literature and Neurobiology might interest you, and your paper is of interest there.