Chinese and English brains

January 30, 2009 at 1:44 am (Uncategorized) (, , , , )


This stuff is not in my brain.

For years, philosophers and linguists such as Benjamin Whorf and Walter Benjamin have discussed whether the minds of readers of speakers and readers could be influenced by the language that they speak.  I have wondered this quite a bit myself as each language uses features that cause the mind to orient itself or manifest itself in different ways.  I recently finished the great book Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf.  During her exploration of how the mind learns to read, she references research which uses modern brain imaging technology to answer the question of whether or not the mind of a Chinese speaker (logographic) could be different from that of an English speaker (alphabet).

Unlike other writing systems (such as alphabets), Sumerian and Chinese show considerable involvement of the right hemisphere area, known to contribute to the many spatial analysis requirements in logographic symbols and also to more global types of processing.  The numerous, visually demanding logographic characters characters require much of the visual areas, as well as the important occiptal-temporal region called area 37, which is involved in object recognition and which Dehaene hypothesizes is the major seat of “neuronal recycling” in literacy.

Although all reading makes use of some portions of the frontal and temporal lobs for planning and for analyzing sounds and meanings in words, logographic systems appear to activate very distinctive parts of the frontal and temporal areas, particularly regions involved in motoric memory skills.  The cognitive neuro-scientists Li-Hai Tan and Charles Perfetti and their research group at the University of Pittsburgh make the important point that these motoric memory areas are far more activated in reading Chinese than in reading other languages, because that is how Chinese symbols are learned by young readers — by writing, over and over.


I am pretty sure that my pre-motor regions do not activate when I read English, but it's hard to tell from the inside.

So at least for the case of reading, we now know that there are different brain regions working when we compare a Chinese reader to say, an English reader.  Does this make one brain better than another?  No, it does not.  It simply means that they are different with different means of processing.  They differ in how they learn to be efficient (nearly automatic) in reading.

Also interesting are studies about Japanese whose two different writing systems result in a kind of ‘hybrid’ brain.  Recent brain imagine studies have actually shown that the results is like a merging of the Chinese and English brain :

Japanese readers offer a particularly interesting example because each reader’s brain must learn two very different writing systems : one of these is a very efficient syllabary (kana) used for foreign words, names of cities, names of persons, and newer words in Japanese; and the second is an older Chinese-influenced logographic script (kanji).  When reading kanji, the Japanese readers use pathways similar to those of Chinese;  when reading kana, they use pathways much more similar to alphabet readers.  In other words, not only are different pathways utilized by readers of Chinese and English, but different routes can be used within the same brain for reading different types of scripts.

The idea of these different routes becomes much more intriguing when Wolf moves on to talk about dyslexia.  As a mother of a dyslexic son and a researcher of reading research, Wolf is uniquely suited to this topic and shows how complex dyslexia is.  It is not simple, and dyslexia does not “map” itself onto other speakers of languages the way other conditions might.  Since the brain in a way configures itself to read the target language, its networks can be very different.

One quote I cannot stop thinking about is from Steven Pinker who says “Children are wired for sound, but print is an optional accessory that must be painstakingly bolted on.”  Over time, we have learned to “re-arrange” our brains given existing hardware so that we can communicate on paper or wax tablets.  As part of her conclusion, Wolf explains how these different “arrangements” may actual result in amazing human beings capable of doing great things that great readers could not accomplish :

Dyslexia is our best, most visible evidence that the brain was never wired to read.  I look at dyslexia as a daily evolutionary reminder that very different organizations of the brain are possible.  Some organizations may not work well for reading, yet are critical for the creation of buildings and art and the recognition of patterns — whether on the ancient battlefields or in biopsy slides.  Some of these variations of the brain’s organization may lend themselves to the requirements of modes of communication just on the horizon.

So think to yourself, how is your brain different from your neighbors?  From your cousin’s?  From an old man writing Chinese characters on parchment?  While none of these are greater than the other, the possibilities open up for some interesting discussion….

A Warhol piece I thought of during the reading

A few other interesting links on the subject :

Mandarin uses more of the brain

How the brain learns depends on the language :

Images taken from this presentation on dyslexia from the University of Hong Kong :


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El Aleph – Borges and the infinite

November 23, 2008 at 2:05 am (Uncategorized) (, , , , , )

I just got done reading “El Aleph” a collection of short stories from Jorge Luis Borges.  I am obsessed with the infinite.  It scares me to death and it also captivates me, so each of these stories is one aspect of the infinite.

I haven’t written a book review in another language since French 4620 so I decided to write this one on GoodReads in Spanish.  If any Spanish speakers out there could correct me in any way or help me further the discussion, I would really appreciate it!

Here’s what I wrote :


No conozco otro escritor como Borges que puede comunicar tales historias del infinito.  Como acabo de leer hace muy poco “Godel Escher Bach” de Hofstadter, no puedo evitar pensar en la idea de los “bucles extranos”.  Hofstadter usa la idea de un bucle como una propriedad de nuestro mente humano o otramente dicho lo que es nuestra conciencia. Me encantan estas historias de Borges que examinan lo que pasa a un ser humano cuando se encuentra con el infinito.

Borges comunica bien la idea de lo que podria pasar a una persona que ve en infinito en un instante.  La historia “El Aleph” tiene muchos ejemplos de los bucles que capturan el mente luego de observar “todos los lugares del orbe, vistos desde todos los angulos.”  Despues de observar estas cosas (o pues, quizas esta cosa… singular) se queda mi version del infierno.  Yo mismo temo el infinito entonces este parte resona conmigo :
“En la calle, en las escaleras de Constitucion, en el subterraneo, me parecieron familiares todas las caras.  Temi que no quedera una sola cosa capaz de sorprenderme, temi que no me abandonara jamas la impresion de volver.”

Una vida sin sorpresa, ya todo visto, eso es una existencia que no puedo y no quiero imaginar.  Para mi, es interesante que nuestra propriedad mental de la recursion es lo que nos separa de los otros animales es tambien lo que podria ser nuestro carcel mental.

Tambien aprecio mucho las connexiones que existen adentro de las historias en la collecion de “El Aleph” y tambien con los otros libros de Borges.  Hay muchos ejemplos de bucles adentro del libro.  Per ejemplo, en “Busca de Averroes”, Borges cuenta la dificuldad de imaginar la historia de Averroes : “para redactar esa narracion, yo tuve que ser aquel hombre y que, para ser aquel hombre, to tuve que redactar esa narracion, y asi hasta lo infinito.”  Igualamente en la historia “El Aleph”, tenemos otro bucle infinito : “vi el Aleph, desde todos los puntos, vi en el Aleph la tierra, y en la tierra otra vez el Aleph, y en el Aleph la tierra.”

Otra connexion que me gusta es la idea que el Aleph es como una puerta a todo escrito posible.  De una manera, esto funciona como un tipo de “biblioteca de Babel”.  De nuevo, podemos seguir este bucle a otros escritos de Borges.  Es increible las relaciones entre los libros de Borges.  Me parece que luego de este Aleph, necesito leer nuevamente my primer libro de Borges, “El libro de arena”

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