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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Games will help Science save the Universe

November 26, 2008 at 9:37 pm (Uncategorized) (, , )



I work in games for a living, but I just read a really great article in New Scientist about games which are being used in several different fields of research to take advantage of our human intuition.  Even with all the increased power of computing power and distributed processing, there are several places where computers fall flat, including visual analysis and spatial tasks.

There were several games listed in the article but the most interesting is  In this game you fold proteins which involves a hosts of problems to be solved in Biology.  Here’s what they say on the site :

Figuring out which of the many, many possible structures is the best one is regarded as one of the hardest problems in biology today and current methods take a lot of money and time, even for computers. Foldit attempts to predict the structure of a protein by taking advantage of humans’ puzzle-solving intuitions and having people play competitively to fold the best proteins.

So if you want to play some games during the holiday season, try this one out so that you can save the universe with science instead of a chainsaw gun.

This game was even mentioned by Richard Dawkins Foundation.  You can follow this link and join his group, but if you really want to be on the team that will win all of science, join me here.

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