Journal Archive > 2001 > September

When the brain becomes a three-ring circus

Maryanne Wolf has spent years understanding how we learn to read and what happens when that process breaks down. Her scholarship has resulted in new developments in treating dyslexia and has added to the body of knowledge in the neurosciences.

Now she has written for a different audience. In her new book, Plato’s Rebellion: The Story and Science of Reading and Its Disorders, to be published in 2002 by Harper-Collins, Wolf explains to a lay audience the story of how written language developed and how the brain learns to decode and comprehend words.

Maryann Wolf’s work with children with reading difficulties has resulted in a new book for a lay audience that explores how the brain learns to decode and comprehend words. © Mark Morelli

“Written language,” Wolf writes in her preface, “represents one of the most extraordinarily complex and least understood acts the species has ever been called upon to learn…to decode written language demands nothing short of a three-ring cortical, subcortical and cerebellar circus in the human brain.”

The book tells the history of how humans acquired written language, takes the reader on a tour of the reading brain, charts the development of reading in a child and examines the various forms of reading breakdown in adults and children. In the history chapters, Wolf uses the period between Socrates and Aristotle as a window on an important transition in human history, when what had been an oral culture became one that began to use written texts. While Socrates argued that reading would result in the loss of a particular form of memory and knowledge, Plato believed that ultimately, the recorded word would result in an explosion of knowledge. Wolf says that Plato’s rebellion “may soon be our own dilemma” in our own transition when “the relationship to memory and to text are also in considerable flux.”

Wolf describes her book as “one part story, two parts science and as much truth as I can find to tell about the reading process and how fiercely we as a society must work to preserve the development of reading…”

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