Reading and the brain, and “brain scans”

There’s a new book out about what happens in our brains when we read, which may appeal to people interested in accessible accounts of neuroscience, as well as to those of us who are watching the shift from paper to electronic reading.

Reading in the brain : the science and evolution of a human invention
Stanislas Dehaene. (New York : Viking, 2009)
ISBN: 9780670021109 – Description: xi, 388 p. : ill., map ; 24 cm.

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I put a reserve on it at the library and am waiting for it to arrive. In the meantime, I found that the author has put all the color figures online along with short chapter summaries. The imbalance on the webpage between text, and the diagrams and brain maps, makes the book look more forbiddingly technical than it is, I hope. Unfortunately the book on Amazon doesn’t have the LookInside feature, so we can’t look at more of the text. Reviews have been mostly positive (links to several, on author’s page; Barnes and Noble review) though one was critical of the book’s accessibility for us “interested lay readers”:

Unfortunately, he needs to lay a lot of groundwork. This makes the first 100 pages of the book an excruciating slog. While it picks up after the first two chapters, the book still sometimes slips back into detailed explanations of neurophysiology. Dehaene is first and foremost an academic, and he seems to want to make his work defensible to his peers even as he tries to explain it to laymen. This is especially problematic in his diagrams. Rather than helping to clarify points, his visual presentations are almost always overly technical, presenting formulas and pictures of the brain that are difficult to decipher. Part of the problem is that images are all black-and-white. While he offers up full color versions on the book’s website, that’s only useful to readers who are also regularly consulting their computers. …The result is a work that requires focus to read, but rewards the effort.

It is disappointing that, according to this reviewer, the images in the book are not in color like those on the web. This reminds me of a book I looked at recently on the various branches of our early human-ish ancestors, in which maps to locate the various hominid species were poorly done or not there at all. Publishers try to cut corners and end up crippling the book. But I hope that won’t be the case here, and even if parts of it are over my head I look forward to the exploration.

I’m expecting a stimulating mix of actual established neuroscience, conclusions based on new research still open to interpretation, and informed speculation. After discussing how, he believes, reading (including our writing systems) developed in response to our neurological structures—“over time, scribes developed increasingly efficient notations that fitted the organization of our brains”, Dehaene applies the same theory to other areas of human culture: “Mathematics, art, and religion may also be construed as constrained devices, adjusted to our primate brains by millennia of cultural evolution.”

Cautions about fMRI (brain scan) studies: What a fish can tell us

I don’t know how much of Reading in the Brain relies on fMRI data, but many of the popularized “this-is-how-your-brain-works” revelations do rely heavily on brain scans, including fMRI, and we’re seeing some push-back from other scientists. A study at Dartmouth (reported by Wired, and Science News) found that a salmon’s brain had “a beautiful, red-hot area of activity that lit up during emotional scenes [photos put before the salmon’s eyes]”. Wow! Unfortunately for all but the spiritualists among us, the fish in question was dead. Apparently the neural activity that showed up was random, and more rigorous statistical analysis of the data revealed this. While many popularizers, especially in the general media, give the impression that brain scan interpretation is cut and dried, the truth is quite the opposite.

Less dramatic studies have also called attention to flawed statistical methods in fMRI studies. Some such methods, in fact, practically guarantee that researchers will seem to find exactly what they’re looking for in the tangle of fMRI data. Other new research raises questions about one of the most basic assumptions of fMRI — that blood flow is a sign of increased neural activity. At least in some situations, the link between blood flow and nerve action appears to be absent. Still other papers point out insufficient attention to insidious pitfalls in interpreting the complex enigmatic relationship between an active brain region and an emotion or task. (Science News)

Michael Shermer, founding Publisher of Skeptic magazine and columnist for Scientific American, gives an excellent presentation of how fMRI works and why “bright spots” in the brain don’t necessarily tell us much of anything. His article (pdf) , “Five Ways Brain Scans Mislead Us”, is as technical as it needs to be but won’t give you a headache. A more technical but still readable article by Edward Vul et al., “Puzzlingly High Correlations in fMRI Studies of Emotion, Personality, and Social Cognition” examines one major source of errors in brain scan analyses. [There’s a short summary here at mindhacks.com, if you want to skip the technical details, and an interview with Edward Vul at scientificamerican.com.]

So while the area known as “social cognitive neuroscience” is fascinating, and we all love quick and easy explanations, remember that much of what you read in this area is, like the lottery, best used “for entertainment purposes only”.

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Home Ground: Words of our native land

Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape, edited by Barry Lopez. Trinity University Press, San Antonio Texas, 2006.

One of the language byways I find fascinating is that of terms for landforms; they’re often based on metaphors (oxbow bend in a river, neck of land), some have ancient linguistic roots, others reflect the cultural history of an area with words from the language of indigenous people or early explorers. Those who share my interest will love this book, but it also has appeal for those who enjoy American regional writing or history, or are interested in how the landforms we see come into being.

Home Ground’s entries are in alphabetical order but it’s far richer than a dictionary. Entries are signed by their authors, who are mostly American writers with particular regional roots––novelists, poets, nature writers, scientists. From them we hear not just the definition and history of the term but also more diverse notes: political (the drowning of Celilo Falls in the Columbia River, by a dam, comes up in the entry for dalles), ecological, personal, and literary (quotations from hundreds of writers including Thoreau, Jack London, T.S. Eliot, Joel Chandler Harris, Pablo Neruda, Louis L’Amour, Joyce Carol Oates).

There are no fewer than three indexes: one for authors so quoted, one for terms (with cross-references), and one for specific place names mentioned: the San Andreas Fault, Satans Slab, South Dakota. And there are short biographies of the writers who produced the entries. With all this, you can browse the book or look for something specific like every mention of the Mississippi River, all the terms relating to ice, or mentions of Herman Melville.

If you have ever wondered what the difference is between a hill and a mountain, or among the words canyon/cleft/coulee/gorge/gully/ravine, you can find out right here. Terms run the gamut of languages––ronde, tseghiizi (Navajo), névé, krummholz, cuesta, gumbo (probably from a Central Bantu dialect), nunatuk, eddy (possbily Norse), erg (Arabic) and so on (although etymology is not always included). And they vary from the words of Western science (imbricated rock) to those of other observers (coyote well, paternoster lake).

And now, a few sample entries:

tule land

Tule land is a term recorded as early as 1856, just after gold rush. It usually refers to the flats of bulrushes and other reeds along the rivers of the West Coast. In the muddy shallows along the Sacramento, for example, as the river takes its time joining the San Joaquin and approaching the San Pablo and San Francisco Bays, there are vast thickets of reeds, home to waterfowl and fur-bearing animals. Tule lands are especially common at the junctures of rivers, where the slightest breeze will set the rushes whispering and rasping over the mud and standing water. The Wintu Indians called tule land “the storehouse of instant tools” because the rushes could be used to make so many things: mats, clothes, baskets, lodges, boats, and cradles, sandals, brooms, fish traps, and talismanic images. ROBERT MORGAN

nivation hollow

In A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail,
Bill Bryson wrote: “I never met a hiker with a good word to say about
the trail in Pennsylvania. It is, as someone told a National Geographic reporter in 1987, the place ‘where boots go to die.’…Mile upon mile of ragged, oddly angled slabs of stone strewn about in wobbly piles…These require constant attentiveness if you are not to twist an ankle or sprawl on your face––not a pleasant experience with fifty pounds of momentum on your back.” Such a hiker on the Appalachian Trail in Pennsylvania might just as well have been complaining about nivation hollows. A bowl-shaped depression in the ground, a nivation hollow begins to take shape when ice forms over a shallow rock basin beneath a snow bank. The ice freezes and thaws over time. During the warm period, melted snow seeps into the bottom of the hollow. During the cooler period, the seep water freezes. The rock breaks up, weathers, and erodes. Meltwater carries away the finer rock particles and the hollow becomes larger and deeper. MARY SWANDER

fil du courant

A Cajun French term meaning “thread of the current,” fil du courant is used to describe the optimal navigation course within a bayou or river. The fil is often visible as a glassy-smooth pathway through the otherwise ripping water. Louisiana shrimpers follow the fil du courant to avoid underwater obstructions and to secure sufficient depth for skim nets that extend winglike from either side of the vessel. MIKE TIDWELL

fall line

Fall line is a phrase both metaphoric and literal. In broader terms, it means the zone where the Piedmont foothills level out into the coastal plain, where sandy soil derived from marine deposits replaces rocky rolling land. On some southeastern rivers, such as in the Carolinas and Virginia, the Fall Line is a specific place where shoals and rapids once stopped navigation from the coast because ships couldn’t pass through. Cities such as Richmond, Fayetteville, and Columbia sprang up at the head of navigation, and mills and factories were built to take advantage of the water power at the falls and rapids. The abrupt change of elevation caused industry and commerce, courts and seats of government, to take root in those areas. ROBERT MORGAN

Line drawings, by Molly O’Halloran, illustrate some of the terms, such as this one for “Quaking Bog” which shows how peat, sphagnum, geologic forms, plants and water all combine to form this floating vegetative structure that will seem solid until stepped on. [The scan is much reduced, and for some reason tinted beige, unlike the original.]

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More free books for kids: Portland, Oregon

Last month I blogged about giving away books to kids at our local food pantry. It’s been an effective way to encourage reading in kids of all ages, and provide parents and grandparents with books they can read with the children. All kids should have books of their very own. I wrote the post hoping to encourage others to get involved in getting books and children together.

As a former Portlander, I am pleased to report that there’s a group in that city dedicated to gathering books and giving them to disadvantaged kids. It’s called The Children’s Book Bank and they are currently concentrating on children under 6, when early habits are formed. They’re doing some creative stuff: one way they gather books is by inviting those who want to help, to have a book drive through their own organization, which could range from Boy Scouts to church to a business or hiking group. They also muster volunteers to help clean and mend books and bundle them up. If you live near Portland, visit their site and think about how you could help.

This offers one model for those who’d like to form an organization for the purpose, as well as for one-time group efforts to gather books and then donate them to some existing organization. I guarantee your community has organizations that would welcome clean usable children’s books. These would include Head Start programs, shelters (ones for women and children, or for homeless families, or for kids on the street), social agency waiting rooms, daycare facilities run by non-profits, Ronald MacDonald Houses, maybe the local Boys and Girls Club. If it’s a place that serves disadvantaged kids or families, they can probably find a good use for your kids’ outgrown books or books your group can gather in a book drive.

And, if you want to do something on your own, like I’ve been doing–showing up each week at the food pantry for 3 hours with a carful of books and two folding tables, I can attest to it being easy, well-received, and very rewarding. I’ve also gotten to read some great kids’ books as I sit by my tables!

Here is a figure from The Children’s Book Bank site:

“Two thirds of low-income families own no books for their children.”

Let’s all do something to change this, now!

Or should it be classified as “fantasy”?

I was searching the Quality Paperback Book site for “science fiction’, and the last of 8 matches was

THE NEW SCIENCE OF GETTING RICH

by Wallace D. Wattles, edited by Ruth Miller

Book- Softcover / October, 2007 / QPB Price: $10.99

I thought this was an amusing computer error, but after I read the club’s description of the book, I see that it is just honesty in advertising…

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Are you obeying the Law of Attraction?

If you’re not, you should. You see, there’s more to getting rich than your talent or your environment. There’s a natural law, the Law of Attraction, which stipulates that specific actions always produce the same results—and money, property and success are among them. Learn the simple equation behind acquiring the riches you’ve dreamed of, and your dreams will become reality.

That’s the message of The New Science of Getting Rich. Originally written by Wallace D. Wattles over a century ago, this hugely influential text inspired Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret and has been fully updated for the 21st century by Ruth Miller. Don’t be a Law-breaker—follow this clear-cut guide and strike it rich!

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With all the excellent science fiction being written today, why has QPB got only 7 titles? And among those 7 are a Steven King, a DVD of X-Files, and a collection of century-old horror and fantasy by Rudyard Kipling.

But QPB has become rather flaky in recent years, flogging fluff and worse. There are 5 hits on a search for “astrology”, and only 4 for “astronomy”; 35 matches for “healing” (a word that I would like banned for a decade or so) including books on the healing powers of olive oil, and vinegar, and water. And Angel Healing, in which you can “Learn to direct angelic color rays through your hands and thoughts to transmit energy and the healing power of angels.”

Another “healing” title offered by QPB is The Miracles of Archangel Michael, wherein author Doreen Virtue, Ph.D. will show you “how to contact Archangel Michael, the powerful protector, and work with him for physical and emotional healing”. The publisher of this last one is Hay House, whose site shows that they specialize in this variety of self-delusion, with other titles (on its site) including
28 Days to a More Magnetic Life
Fractal Time: The Secret of 2012 and a New World Age
and Psychic Healing: Using the Tools of a Medium to Cure Whatever Ails You.

O tempora, O mores! (And what else is new, eh?)

Free books for kids at the Food Pantry

“Free Books for Kids” says the sign that I put up every week at the local food pantry. The boxes of books, and two small folding tables, live in the back of my old Explorer.

This,

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quickly becomes this

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When I began several years ago I was thinking it would be like a library or book exchange: kids would return the ones they chose last time and get new ones. It didn’t take long to understand the shortcomings of that model. Mostly, there’s too much turnover and uncertainty. Families are only permitted 12 visits a year to the food pantry (a state or federal limitation); they might come three weeks in a row and then not return for months. Some live in cars, campgrounds, or at a series of friends’ houses. And families vanish, moving elsewhere for various reasons or (we hope) experiencing an improvement so that they don’t need the food pantry any more. Kids forget to bring things back. I can’t turn away needy kids that want books; my desire is only to get books into the hands of young people, from infants to high schoolers.

So now my little “Book Bank” (like a “Food Bank”) is as simple as can be. Free books for kids whose families come to the food pantry. Period. I say, “You can bring them back whenever you’re done, or keep them forever.”

That’s the only way it will work, and it also gives kids books of their very own. A dozen favorite books don’t take up much space and may be a help to children who move a lot, and live with constant change and uncertainty.

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I had expected my “customers” to be kids and parents, but grandparents have turned out to be an important group too. Some care for grandchildren regularly (or are raising them), some have kids staying over in summer, visiting on weekends, or just dropping in. A few aunts and uncles come by also. Occasionally these books are given by the adults as birthday or Christmas gifts to the kids.

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I’ve expanded to include workbooks (printing, arithmetic, shapes and colors, word recognition, etc.) and flash-cards.

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This isn’t the Baby Einstein scene, grooming kids for prep school or to impress the parents’ rich friends; the parents and grandparents want their kids to be ready for school, and to do well there. Despite all the worries a family has when they need to come to a food pantry, most of these adults are actively working to help their children succeed in school. And I know the parents read to the children because the kids themselves tell me so.

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Cardboard books for infants and toddlers are popular. These sturdy books have bright simple illustrations; parents can point out colors, shapes, animals, noses and ears as the babies are learning language (long before any actual words come out). Children learn how to hold a book right way up, turn the pages, and be comfortable with a book in hand. They get a positive association with books and reading, to go along with the good feelings of being read to from all sorts of books––as well as from being sung to, talked to, and all those other forms of language that flow between adults and young children.

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The books are arranged by age of likely readers: in addition to the bins of cardboard books and workbooks, there are two big plastic boxes: one for picture books and simple books, another for longer books with longer words. “Chapter books” (a new term that I learned from the kids, who ask for them that way) go in a smaller box; these are short to medium-length novels for readers up through high school.

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Except for the workbooks, I regularly read books from all of the categories while I am sitting alongside my display. There’s some very good writing, and of course the illustrations are often wonderful. Kids’ books must be putting bread in the mouths of quite a few artists. That’s a good thing especially with art in schools having been virtually eliminated; at least children get to see paintings, drawings, and photographs with artistic merit and heart.

Where do the books come from? and other details

Most come from the bookstores operated by Friends of the Library, at local branches and also in Portland (OR). Locally I pay 25¢- 50¢; Portland has higher prices but a huge selection. Twice a year I go there and buy maybe a hundred books, stocking up on the ever-popular dinosaur picture books, ones on science and nature, and others that are hard to find. Then there are garage and yard sales where sometimes kids’ books go for a few bucks per cardboard boxful. Once in a while I find suitable new books at the Dollar Store, where I buy all the workbooks and flash-cards. And occasionally people (at the food pantry or elsewhere) donate books outgrown by their children. I could be more active in soliciting such donations, something to work on.

After I acquire books I do a little processing. I wash the covers and spines with a damp rag and 409 to remove grime and make the books look shiny and more appealing. A few may need a bit of mending, for which I use clear packaging tape. Then I stamp each one inside the back cover: “Free Books for kids/at Ruch Food Pantry./To donate kids’ books/or $ pls call xxx-1234.”

One reason for the stamp is to help books come back, although few do. I have an informal arrangement with the local branch library: if books with my stamp arrive in their bookdrop, they save them for me. That offers a much more accessible return location than the food pantry which is only open 3 hours a week.

Our food pantry is a small one; we average 20 to 25 households each week, though lately it has been getting busier. There are many households that don’t include children. There are times when I go home without having given out a single book, and days when I have half a dozen eager customers. When people arrive I haven’t seen before, I go over and introduce myself; even if there aren’t any children accompanying them, there may be kids at home, or grandchildren in their lives. If kids hang back shyly I talk to them and their parents and invite them to come and look. A lot of these kids are quite wary of how much things cost, so they need reassurance that yes, all the books are free (even though some have old price stickers from the places where I got them). And I let my customers know how pleased I am that they came, which is just the truth.

And when someone comes over to tell me that the books have made a difference—their grandchild is reading better, their kids are enjoying the books or benefitting from the workbooks, do I have more books about horses or dogs because their daughter just loves to read them—well, you can imagine how good that is!

And now, why did I write this?

Only one reason: I’m hoping someone may read it and decide to do something similar. The Food Pantry connexion is a good one, and the project doesn’t take a lot of time. Your Food Pantry or similar organization would probably welcome this addition to their services. “Food for the mind, as well as the body,” was my pitch, but the idea didn’t really need a “pitch” to be accepted. Or perhaps you just have books your kids have outgrown: consider giving them to the local women’s shelter, where women and children often arrive with nothing but the clothes on their backs, and may stay for weeks. Library Friends’ bookstores always welcome donations, and offer cheap books to the community (with proceeds used to support library activities and services). And libraries or schools may need volunteers to read with kids or to kids.

If you’re looking for an organization to get involved with, there seem to be a lot of them. Maybe your area has one like SMART (Start Making A Reader Today) in Oregon that pairs adult volunteers with early readers, to improve children’s ability and their love for reading. There are many local and national groups concerned with kids and reading; I googled “kids reading organizations” [do not use quotation marks if using this as a search term] and came up with a bunch. Look for evidence of actual work done, not just raising money and promoting “awareness of the issue”.

“Give me a place to stand, and I can move the earth.” So said Archimedes, who did not invent the lever but gave the “earliest known rigorous explanation” of how it worked. There are many such places to stand, for anyone who wants to change the world a bit. The promotion of reading for kids, in a direct personal way, is one of them.

“Sweat of the brow” copyright

As a person who enjoys the digitized reproductions, on the web, of old illustrations, I found this interesting reading:

Gutenberg: No Sweat of the Brow Copyright

From Project Gutenberg, the first producer of free electronic books (ebooks).

Work performed on a public domain item, known as sweat of the brow, does not result in a new copyright. This is the judgment of Project Gutenberg’s copyright lawyers, and is founded in a study of case law in the United States. This is founded in the notion of authorship, which is a prerequisite for a new copyright. Non-authorship activities do not create a new copyright.

Some organizations erroneously claim a new copyright when they add value to a public domain item, such as to an old printed book. But despite the difficulty of the work involved, none of these activities result in new copyright protection when performed on a public domain item:

▪ scanning and optical character recognition (OCR)

▪ proofreading and OCR error correction

▪ fixing spelling and typography, including substantial updates to spelling such as changing from American to British English

▪ adding markup (HTML, XML, TeX, etc.)

▪ digitizing, cropping, color-adjusting or other modifications to images

▪ addition of trivial new content, such as images to indicate page breaks in an HTML file, or pictures of gothic letters for the first letter in a chapter, or adding or removing a few words per chapter

▪ substantial reorganization, such as moving footnotes to end-notes, or changing the locations of pictures within the text

▪ recoding to new character sets, such as Unicode, or new formats, such as PDF

There is some value-added content that DOES get a new copyright, but only for the actual new work (that is, it may be possible to remove the new copyrighted content to go back to a public domain document):

▪ translation into another human language

▪ creating a new compilation of existing materials (though the individual items compiled retain their public domain status)

▪ creating new original art work

▪ creating an original derivative work, such as an audio performance, a new chapter, or a set of favorite quotations

▪ adding a new introduction or critical essay

Project Gutenberg is able to utilize any material which is judged to be public domain in the country of use (i.e., the United States). If it is determined that components of an item are public domain, but others are not, then the copyrighted components may be removed without the permission of whoever owns the copyright for the new content.
It is Project Gutenberg’s practice to seek permission of those who distribute materials, including copyright claimants, before harvesting their materials. This is done in order to be polite, and to allow the producer or distributor to request a particular credit be used. But if permission is not given, public domain items can still be used by Project Gutenberg, typically without any attribution. Because Project Gutenberg receives submissions from many different sources, it is not always clear where an item came from. Volunteers who submit content they did not themselves generate should be diligent about reporting sources, even if the source will not be credited in the item as distributed by Project Gutenberg.

Transcendental Refreshment: Golden Peony and two poems

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above, center peony detail of the textile work American Tanka 112 by Dan Barker. Gold and silver thread, gold leaf and pearls on fabric. See more here.

Wild Geese by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting–
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

© Mary Oliver

I Looked Up

I looked up and there it was
among the green branches of the pitchpines—

thick bird,
a ruffle of fire trailing over the shoulders and down the back—

color of copper, iron, bronze—
lighting up the dark branches of the pine.

What misery to be afraid of death.
What wretchedness, to believe only in what can be proven.

When I made a little sound
it looked at me, then it looked past me.

Then it rose, the wings enormous and opulent,
and, as I said, wreathed in fire.

© Mary Oliver

from Owls and other Fantasies, poems and essays (2003), by Mary Oliver.

More of her poetry can be found online at Poet Seers