Some of the Neuroscience Behind Early Reading Skills

The gentle hum of the refrigerator behind me. The scent of wet earth. It is 5:30 in the morning and my legs are warm from a walk in the cool desert night. Orion had crested the mountains, and, as usual, several shooting stars afflicted my path. As I sit here, excited about the pot of tea slowly brewing beside me, I call upon the muses to help piece together something that has, till now, lain dormant in my mind.

It is mid-August, and everywhere are signs of back to school. The schools in Taos have begun, and most of my nieces and nephews elsewhere in the country have returned as well. My daughter and I have two more weeks of freedom, but my mind is already enveloped in preparations for what will be a landmark year for me, and I am fast converting my apartment (and my life) into a classroom for four.

There has long been a debate about when best to teach children to read, but today that debate has largely been slammed shut. This year, most kindergartners will be expected to learn their ABC’s and it is not uncommon for children of four or five to read simple words and books. The vast majority of people see this as progress: the earlier we learn, the smarter we get.

Waldorf schools are famous (or infamous) for introducing reading at a later age, and that’s largely why many people consider them suspect. I am not a Waldorf teacher, nor do I aim to be one, but the majority of my mentors are Waldorf teachers and their philosophy of education – that of teaching the whole child – resonates with me more than the Common Core State Standards that I’ve also been reviewing in preparation for the coming year.

As I look toward the coming year, including all the conflicts and hazards I expect to meet, I’d like to take a moment, if only for myself, to lay out some of the science behind language acquisition, at least as I understand it, and explain why there is good reason to believe that introducing reading and other abstract subjects too early can sometimes lead to well-educated adults who cannot see the forest for the trees.

In his landmark book on comparative neuroscience, The Symbolic Species, Terrence Deacon refers to the study of a bonobo (pygmy chimp) named Kanzi. Humans have long been trying to teach chimps and other great apes language skills, and Kanzi’s example is unique and well-documented. At first, Kanzi was not the subject of linguistic education at all. His surrogate mother was. But to comprehend his story, we first need to understand what Deacon means by the “symbolic” species and “symbolic” language.

Deacon refers to three types of language or knowledge (and if this sounds a little boring, I promise you that Kanzi’s story will make it worthwhile). First, is what Deacon calls iconic language. Egyptian hieroglyphics are the classic example, where the figure not only stands for the concept but has some physical resemblance to it. Roman numerals are another example.

After iconic language comes indexical language, which our modern alphabet or Arabic numerals represent. These indexical relationships no longer share a resemblance to the original concept, i.e. the word “ape” does not give us a visual clue to its meaning. Indexical relationships are defined by their one-to-one correspondence, meaning that the words or images correlate to a specific concept, object or action. This kind of language – an indexical education – has been the primary focus of early language instruction to chimps and other apes. In other words, people have been trying for some time to teach apes a vocabulary in order to study their, and therefore our, relationship to language.

Here’s the problem – while some exceedingly patient and ingenious scientists have managed to teach a handful of words (or lexigrams) to a handful of apes, almost none of those apes have had much success in understanding the inter-relational meanings of those words. On occasion, some apes have learned a lexigram for “banana”, a lexigram for “on top”, and a lexigram for “water”, but when given a novel and uncommon task like “put the banana on top of the water” they routinely fail.

This gets to the essence of what Deacon means by a symbolic language, and it is the power behind all human languages, both oral and written. An iconic language is a language of resemblance, or a graphic relationship. Today, a good example would be emoji, or the man or woman sign on a bathroom door. An indexical language no longer carries a resemblance, but it retains a one-to-one correspondence. A symbolic language, on the other hand, is less about the precise meaning of any one word and more about the relationships between them.

Consult a dictionary. Many of our most common words, like “it” or “at”, have long and obtuse definitions that do more to obscure their meaning than define them. But put them in a chain of words, like a sentence, and it comes alive at once. This is a symbolic language.

For years, Deacon claims, scientists tried to teach a symbolic language to apes using an indexical instruction method. That education is precisely what Kanzi’s surrogate mother, Matata, was undergoing when, as a small child, Kanzi clung to her breast. Like most human children, he appeared distracted, impatient and generally uninterested in what his mother was doing, but since he made a fuss without her company he was tolerated in the classroom.

Kanzi’s mother, Matata, went on to learn a number of words, or lexigrams, but like most other apes she had a hard time leaping from the indexical relationship to the symbolic one. She had a hard time putting the banana on the water. Kanzi, however, who never received formal instruction, shocked researchers one day when Matata was away. Playing with the lexigram machine, he demonstrated not only an admirable indexical knowledge of the lexigrams (correctly signing “banana” for banana, etc.), but the first signs ever of an ape comprehending the symbolic relationship between those lexigrams. In other words, he put the banana on the water (I mean this allegorically, not literally).

Now, why does this matter? And what does it have to do with children learning to read? Deacon uses Kanzi’s example to explore the way a neural network, i.e. a brain, acquires language. The problem, he says, with Matata and other apes is that an excessive focus on indexical knowledge (the one-to-one correspondence of figures and their meaning) tends to lead their brains into a sort of dead end. In other words, Matata, and many others before her, failed to grasp the symbolic relationship of language because she was overly focused on vocabulary. It’s as if she got stuck, word-for-word, in the dictionary and failed to see the meaning of the entire sentence. She lost the forest for the trees.

Humans, on the other hand, have no such trouble. Given a healthy amount of speech, by the age of three or four every healthy human will acquire a language that far surpasses that of any other animal. For years, this was assumed to be because we have a unique “language center” in our brains. Noam Chomsky is famous for having predicted it, and for decades this was considered academically bulletproof.

Chomsky, a linguist, studied the acquisition of language in cultures from around the world and in a brilliant but fallible theory surmised that the human adaptation of language was so complex that it could not be merely an advanced form of animal communication. It was another thing altogether, he said, and he predicted a unique “language center” in the brain that was like nothing else in the animal world.

But as modern neuroscience advanced, a problem arose – nobody could find this language center. Instead, the comprehension and use of language appeared to arise from multiple centers all over the brain, all of which shared functions with other parts of our neurological makeup. Today, modern neuroscientists accept that there is no one linguistic center. Deacon’s book is an attempt to reconcile, and transcend, the academic vacuum left behind.

Kanzi’s story is both scientific and anecdotal. He has been the subject of many peer-reviewed journal articles on the subject of language acquisition, but such studies are far from common enough to demonstrate a prevailing pattern. However, Deacon goes on to demonstrate a similar process using computer neural networks.

It is beyond the scope of this essay to describe the neural models that Deacon describes in his book, but there are two guiding principles we can borrow from Norman Doidge’s bestseller The Brain that Changes Itself, which apply in both computer neural networks and our own brains: 1) use it or lose it, and 2) neurons that fire together wire together. In other words, the connection between any two neurons is facilitated and strengthened by use. Once wired in a certain pattern, and then repeated, the neural operation (which we might recognize consciously as a certain idea, motor control or longing), gets stronger. The stronger the connection, the more likely it will fire again, and so on. A simple way to look at this is that the more often you “think” or “remember” something, the easier it will be in the future to recall it again. The same can be said for repeated physical manipulations, i.e. muscle “memory”, which lies in the brain, not the muscle tissue.

What makes human beings remarkable and so highly adaptive is not simply that our brains are large and complex, but that we are able to adjust to an enormous array of situations and skills. This is not so of any other animal, each of which requires its proper ecological setting to survive. Our brains are essentially no different than they were 70,000 years ago, but any child can adapt just as easily to a life of hunting and gathering as to one of autopiloted cars and packaged rice. The term for this is plasticity.

The plasticity of the brain is currently a subject of great excitement and controversy. To comprehend it, a brief review of materials science is helpful. A material is said to be plastic when it is deformable, and the opposite of plastic is elastic. An elastic material is one that changes shape under load or pressure, then returns to the same shape once released. Your waistband is a good example, but so is steel. Steel and most metals are highly elastic, and that’s why our shocks and struts, our airplanes, and most large buildings are made of steel and other metals. Steel gives, it shifts and twists, then returns to its proper shape. This is what makes it incredible strong and versatile.

Yet, we all know that a metal spoon, when shoved a bit too excitedly into some hard ice cream, bends. Permanently. One can bend it back, and in most cases the spoon will suffice all the same, but once that spoon bends – and stays that way – it is called a plastic deformation. Do that to an airplane wing and you’re in big trouble.

Plastic, the ubiquitous material in our modern lives, is often thought of as flexible and unbreakable, but it is precisely its opposite quality – its ability to change shape and form – that gives it its name. Plastic is coveted because of the ease by which we turn it into myriad shapes – bowls, keyboards, bags, etc. Not so with steel. Steel is elastic, which means once it’s formed it is hard (or harder) to change its shape.

Until recently, neuroscientists considered the brain to be a relatively static and unchangeable organ, especially in adulthood. A child’s brain may grow and develop, the story went, but once adulthood was reached it stayed largely the same. If someone had a mind like a steel trap, that was considered a good thing; it meant once remembered, always remembered (i.e. the brain doesn’t change). That is typical of the old story, an elastic brain that “changes” shape or contour during any particular thought sequence, then snaps back into place before the next round of Jeopardy.

Satisfying as that story might be, we now know it’s not true. Instead, the brain is now known to be highly plastic and deformable, and remains so through much of our adulthood and even into old age. By this, we don’t mean physically, as in get hit in the head and your brain deforms, but that the very process of thinking, the firing, re-firing and reclaiming of neurons, changes the structure of the brain. This is most apparent in childhood, but remains true throughout one’s adult life.

The tendency of idle neural connections to be recruited by other more pertinent tasks is what is meant by the principle of “use it or lose it.” For example, neurons that typically control visual areas in most people are sometimes utilized by blind men and women to increase the sophistication of their hearing. This is by no means conscious, merely the result of the brain’s tendency to put every available resource to good use. Over time, the result is a dynamic organ that continually reshapes itself to the needs of the organism. The process is slow, and many neural networks are so commonly fired that the appearance, or feeling, is one of a static brain, a static self, language or knowledge. But in reality, the brain is more like a shifting sand dune than a steel trap.

So, what does the plasticity of our brain have to do with children learning to read? In his sweeping and revolutionary work, Terrence Deacon points out both the beauty and the vulnerability of a plastic neural network such as ours. On one hand, it is capable of almost limitless adaptation, but on the other hand it tends to form itself into the shape of its container. In other words, the repeated attention of Matata’s brain to the indexical, one-to-one, relationship of words to objects made it so that the neurological structure of her brain appeared to be hyper-focused on that one-to-one relationship. She was unable to put the banana on the water, to see the forest for the trees. Kanzi, on the other hand, who had received no formal instruction, and therefore had the freedom to witness both the local, indexical relationships and the global, symbolic coherence, spontaneously demonstrated an ability that had previously been unheard of.

One might conclude from this research that in order to teach children to read, it is essential to expose them early and often to both the local and global meaning of written words, syntax, punctuation, reading order (left to right, top down), etc. On one hand, that is exactly right and we have a fair amount of evidence to prove it. Teaching techniques that advance linearly, without recourse to global structure and meaning, are inferior. But what if reading, writing and math are not the goal? What if they are merely the tools of something greater? And if they are, does it make sense to focus our primary educational efforts so exclusively on their acquisition? This is where I take exception.

The modern industrial world is full of well-educated, essentially well-fed and healthy adults that, for reasons we don’t fully understand, are frequently unhappy and sometimes dangerously so. There is a sort of malaise, or stress level, at every age bracket from fifteen to sixty-five. Sons don’t respect their fathers, daughters defy their mothers, and suicide remains one of the top ten sources of death nationwide. Increasingly, adults and children are prescribed pharmaceuticals to improve attention and achieve a base-level satisfaction. At the same time, our political, cultural and economic systems, driven as they are by those same well-educated and well-fed folks, are increasingly polarized and contentious. The earth, the wild and vibrant earth, is sick.

There is plenty of reason to assume that this lack of health is for reasons wholly unrelated to the human ability to read. In fact, most people would find the association laughable. But maybe it is more relevant than at first glance. What we have learned from examples like Kanzi and Matata is that our brains seem to learn best from a relaxed and diverse exposure to both local (specific) and global (systemic) knowledge and sense data. If our goal is to read and write, then exposing children to the local and global conventions of reading and writing at the earliest possible age is in order. But is it possible that our focus on reading and writing, and their ally in mathematics, is causing a similar problem to the one that Matata experienced? Are we not in a world full to the brim with photos, facts and figures, yet with little wisdom or equanimity? Is it possible that by focusing too early on written language acquisition that we are shaping the delicate contours of our children’s brains with powerful tools that, though magnificent in their own right, leave few resources left in the brain to acquire subtler arts? Do we really want the modern world, with all of its conveniences and little of its joy? And is it possible that, by exposing our children to a wider range of diverse facts, skills and sensory experiences, including but not limited to the language and mathematical arts, that they might, like Kanzi, spontaneously acquire a wisdom or knowledge we are currently incapable of seeing?

Let me be clear – I’m not suggesting that we don’t teach reading, writing and math, just that our singular and early devotion to these subjects might be causing some of the ill we experience in our daily lives. The subjects themselves aren’t bad – they’re wonderful and good – but our exclusive attention to them at an early age may be too rapidly acquiring a child’s fledgling mental resources (not to mention an adult’s), resulting in fewer resources left for things like impulse control, conflict resolution, and a self-love that springs from within.

Isn’t this what many of us experience today? Our work, our finances, our houses and cars take so much of our attention that we have little left for the kind of slow and patient work required to maintain meaningful and loving relationships with our husbands and wives, our children and neighbors, let alone ourselves. We are well-educated, well-fed, and often unhappy. It might be that people were always unhappy.

The increasing focus on the three R’s in recent decades coincides with the goal to educate our children for “college, career and life,” or so says the Common Core State Standards that are now the foundation of most public and private schools in the US. But what about all the people with college degrees and successful careers who are miserable? Maybe the goal isn’t as obvious as it seems. Maybe it’s worth experimenting with different styles of education, even radically diverse styles of education. Words so rarely heal our hearts. Math doesn’t succor. Technology and investment might be a rational dead-end.

Right now, I’m listening to a willow branch scrape against the window over my kitchen sink. Dark, swirling thunderstorms lurk nearby, threatening to land. It’s hard to explain how the sound of that single branch can bring so much solace, but it’s enough for me to say that this mere expression, after nearly eight pages of expository text, saves my soul. The earth, for all its sorrows and garbage, remains a living and vibrant fabric of life. My daughter, my brother, my lover and good friends – these people remain alive, if only for a brief period in my own brief life. Dogs bark, owls coo and hens scratch. While I’m alive, I'm going to sing.