The Brain’s Letterbox

The Brain’s Letterbox

By David Ludden. Humans have likely been speaking since the dawn of the species a quarter million years ago. Over evolutionary time, the human brain has been molded for language, as regions such as Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas have become specialized for speech production and perception. These aren’t new brain structures or unique to humans, but their exact functions in our hominid ancestors and primate cousins are still unclear.\ Language has encroached on other functional areas of the brain as well. For example, the cerebellum, which coordinates the rhythmic movements of the limbs when walking, also guides the rhythmic production of syllables when talking. In short, natural selection has reprogrammed the human brain for speech. Reading, on the other hand, is an entirely different matter. Almost all of us learn our mother tongue effortlessly as a normal part of growing up. But learning to read is hard work, and many of us struggle with the task even in adulthood. In fact, reading is a very unnatural act for humans. Writing is a recent invention, going back only a few thousand years—a mere blink of the eye on the evolutionary time scale. Furthermore, the concept of universal literacy is an even more recent phenomenon, and it’s still more of a lofty goal than standard practice in many places around the world.
Children engaged in reading task
Reading is an unnatural task—and a difficult one for many people.
Since there’s no evolutionary history for reading and writing, it’s clear that the brain can’t be hardwired for processing written language. Instead, we make use of areas that perform other functions and retrain them to process reading and writing. Consequently, all writing systems have certain features in common that enable them to be learned by the brain.
Writing systems may represent language at the word, syllable, or phoneme (speech sound) level. But they’re all alike in terms of the symbols they use. That is, all writing systems consist of characters that are composed of lines and curves in contrasting orientations.
In other words, letters are line drawings. This is true whether the language is written with stylus on clay tablet, pen on papyrus, or ink brush on paper. And it’s not due to the limitations of the writing instruments, since all of these media can be used to produce other kinds of visual designs.
Japan QR code billboard

Your smart phone can read this, but your brain cannot.

Because the brain isn’t hardwired for reading, writing systems have to conform to the way the brain processes visual information. Primary visual cortex is located in the occipital lobe at the back of the head. An early process in visual perception is edge detection, and it’s one of the brain’s first steps in distinguishing the various objects in the visual array. This early process explains why objects in line drawings are often easier to identify than in photographs. Line drawings highlight the edges of objects so your brain doesn’t have to. Thus, the brain first interprets letters as visual, not linguistic, objects. The brain also needs a place to store information about the writing system it’s learned. Running along the bottom of the occipital lobe, where line detection takes place, and the temporal lobe, where object recognition occurs, is a structure known as the fusiform gyrus. This is an area that processes complex visual stimuli.
Fusiform gyrus animation
 The fusiform gyrus processes complex visual stimuli, such as familiar faces and written words. One function of the fusiform gyrus is face recognition. This is where we store representations for the faces of the thousands of people we know. People with damage to this area can still recognize an object as a face, but they can’t tell whose face it is. So that man across the dinner table from you could be your husband of thirty years, or it could be Brad Pitt—you just never know. Also in the fusiform gyrus is the visual word form area. This is where the symbols of the writing system are stored, regardless of the language or the type of script. The visual word form area is informally known to language researchers as the brain’s letterbox. The brain hasn’t evolved to process written language the way that it has for spoken language. So the discovery of the visual word form area was quite a surprise. Even more surprising was the finding that all writing systems, including the complex Chinese script, are processed in this same area. It’s not quite clear what humans were doing with their visual word form area for hundreds of thousands of years before they started reading. Perhaps our hunter-gatherer ancestors used that portion of the brain for “reading” animal tracks and distinguishing edible from inedible plants. At any rate, writing systems have to use symbols that are similar to the kinds of information this area originally processed, and that’s why all writing systems are so similar. This recruitment of a specific brain region for use as the visual word form area is known as neuronal recycling. That is, brain areas originally designed for one function can be reorganized to perform another, somewhat similar function. It’s neuronal recycling that gives us the ability to learn all sorts of novel complex behaviors, such as driving a car or playing the piano, that our brains weren’t preprogrammed to perform. References Changizi, M. A., & Shimojo, S. (2005). Character complexity and redundancy in writing systems over human history. Proceedings of the Royal Society, B, 272, 267–275. Dehaene, S. (2009). Reading in the brain: The new science of how we read. New York: Hudson. Dehaene, S., & Cohen, L. (2011). The unique role of the visual word form area in reading. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 15, 254–262. Perfetti, C. A., & Tan, L.-H. (2013). Write to read: The brain’s universal reading and writing network. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 17, 56–57. Zhang, M., Li, J., Chen, C., Mei, L., Xue, G., Lu, Z., . . . Dong, Q. (2013). The contribution of the left mid-fusiform cortical thickness to Chinese and English reading in a large Chinese sample. NeuroImage, 65, 250–256. David Ludden is the author of The Psychology of Language: An Integrated Approach (SAGE Publications) About the Author: David Ludden, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Georgia Gwinnett College. https://www.psychologytoday.com/nz/blog/talking-apes/201501/the-brain-s-letter

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A Ground-breaking Approach to Reading

A Ground-breaking Approach to Reading

By Paul Blackman & Blair Murray

We live in a precarious time, which has accelerated the use of online learning tools.

What if we could take advantage of technology for the greater good and empower all children to become successful, life-long learners with a passion for reading including those that normally fall through the gaps due to learning differences, such as dyslexia?

Our history is full of amazingly talented people such as Albert Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci, Steven Spielberg and Richard Branson, all dyslexic, whose contributions have made a massive difference to our world.

How many of our precious tamarakri, do we have sitting in our classrooms whose contributions we may never see. Sadly according to the Dyslexia Foundation of New Zealand while 10% of the general population are Dyslexic this climbs up to 90% among prison inmates.

What if we were able to cater for all students regardless of where they find themselves on the learning spectrum? So how do we improve outcomes for these learners?

We believe it’s about changing a child’s core beliefs so that they see their learning differences as an asset and learn to turn their learning differences into an advantage.

Image for post

 

Paul Blackman (Founder)

Our Worldsmart Kids app aimed at children 4–8 years is about providing a foundation for all students to achieve to their potential by tailoring a reading programme to suit their existing skill level.
The games found in the app are inherent in making the learning experience fun. They include storytelling (the brain’s natural way of learning), Phonemes, Graphemes, Decoding and Listening Skills, alongside Mindfulness to support focus and impulse control. This methodology is supported by the latest research in Neuro-Science. Furthermore, artificial intelligence and voice activation allows the student to progress at their own pace.

With competence in reading comes confidence across all areas of learning. The app is not designed exclusively for students with learning differences, but for any beginner reader, including reluctant learners.

The WordSmart Kids app has been built from the ground up here in the Coromandel. The app is constantly evolving as is artificial intelligence as a learning tool. We have a talented team of experienced locals bringing our vision to life; the app is available for a limited time free on the Apple App and Google Play Store.

Paul Blackman & Blair Murray (Published in Seagull Magazine, October 2020).

 

 

Educational Neuroscience – Finding your personal learning sweet spot

Educational Neuroscience – Finding your personal learning sweet spot

 

By Scott Bolland

We are born with a natural thirst for knowledge. Biologically, the highest concentration of happy hormones (endorphins) in our body is found in the learning centers of our brain. This means we are hardwired to learn. It also means learning brings us great joy.

Just imagine what you would rather do – engage in a stimulating activity like reading or drawing or staring at a blank wall? The answer is fairly simple: We are what Jaap Panksepp calls ‘Seekers‘.  We find joy in self-exploration and play. We like to seek and engage in activities that activate the learning centers of our brain. This is how we learn and how eventually competencies emerge.

But if that is the case why do so many kids struggle at school?

The answer is also quite simple: There is a mismatch of how we teach and how the brain actually learns. To understand what this means let me explain a bit more about the learning process.

The learning centers in our brain release happy hormones (endorphins) in an inverted U- shape based on the familiarity of the topic we are learning about. Accordingly, we perceive things that are too familiar as boring and those that are too unfamiliar as aversive. An example would be reading the same book over and over again versus reading a book in a language we do not speak.

In both of these scenarios – too familiar, too foreign, it is unlikely for us to learn. Our brain phases-out as they are not very pleasurable and engaging.

So how do we learn? The answer to this is to find each person’s individual learning sweet spot. Here learning occurs naturally as we are in the flow.

A model created by Lev Vygotsky can help with understanding this approach. He stipulates that it is the things on the periphery of our current knowledge, in the “Zone of Proximal Development”, that extend our capabilities. These are highly pleasurable as endorphins are released making learning enjoyable. Further than that, when we engage in learning in this zone also Dopamin is released making learning highly addictive.

Picture

Source: Lev Vygotsky (https://www.simplypsychology.org/vygotsky.html)

If we now bring what we have just learned back into the classroom situation we understand that a set curriculum, at a set pace, leaves some students bored and some behind. With the current approach, only a few students get information on the periphery of their knowledge which means they are engaged, are learning well and enjoying it. Studies have shown that up to 63% of all students in the classroom are disengaged and therefore not learning as well as they could be or not at all.

But how can one teacher tailor the learning content specifically to 25+ students and their individual level of knowledge? This is a daunting task that seems unachievable.

A few years back this would have been an impossible mission. But with current technology around Artificial Intelligence, this is an achievable goal. It can be used as a tool to optimise learning content in a digital context. Artificial Intelligence today allows us to adapt to the students’ needs and capabilities within seconds.

With the advance of fun and engaging digital learning games that keep the students motivated to learn this new technology can be seamlessly integrated into the classroom to support the teacher and the students.

Remember, the ultimate goal is finding the right balance between challenge and achievement to tickle the students learning sweet spot. We want children to learn, be happy and excel. Because happy kids are better learners that live up to their full potential.

Source: Scott Bolland

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