Today’s Learning Quotation, from Stanislas Dehaene
Today’s learning quotation is long and somewhat complex, but worth wrestling with for the profound insight it offers into how our brains learn. It’s from the wonderful book Reading in the Brain, by cognitive neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene:
Most social scientists “subscribe to a naive model of the brain, tacitly viewing it as an infinitely plastic organ whose learning capacity is so broad that it places no constraints on the scope of human activity. The default ‘standard social science model’ shared by many anthropologists, sociologists, some psychologists, and even a few neuroscientists maintains that the human brain, unhindered by the limitations of biology and unlike that of any animal species, can absorb any form of culture. In this book, I refute this simplistic view of an infinite adaptability of the brain to culture. New evidence on the cerebral circuits of reading demonstrates that the hypothesis of an equipotent brain is wrong.
To be sure, if the brain were not capable of learning, it could not adapt to the specific rules for writing English, Japanese, or Arabic. This learning, however, is tightly constrained, and its mechanisms themselves rigidly specified by our genes. The brain’s architecture is similar in all members of the Homo sapiens family, and differs only slightly from that of other primates. All over the world, the same brain regions activate to decode a written word. Whether in French or in Chinese, learning to read necessarily goes through a genetically constrained circuit.
On the basis of these data, I propose a novel theory of neurocultural interactions, radically opposed to cultural relativism. I call it the ‘neuronal recycling’ hypothesis. According to this view, human brain architecture obeys strong genetic constraints, but some circuits have evolved to tolerate a fringe of variability. Part of our visual system, for instance, is not hardwired, but remains open to changes in the environment. Within an otherwise well-structured brain, visual plasticity gave the ancient scribes an opportunity to invent reading. Far from being a blank slate that absorbs everything in its surroundings, our brain adapts to a given culture by minimally turning its predispositions to a different use. It is not a tabula rasa within which cultural constructions are amassed, but a very carefully structured device that manages to convert some of its parts to a new use.”
Our ability to read may be permitted only by virtue of “a fringe of variability,” in Dehaene’s wonderful phrase, but what a rich and profound ability it is. I highly recommend Dehaene’s book, which you can learn more about here.