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.


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, if you want to skip the technical details, and an interview with Edward Vul at]

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”.


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


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…


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!


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?)

Children’s books online: social history, public-domain illustrations



I’m fascinated by the wealth of vintage illustrations that have been scanned and made available on the web. The BibliOdyssey blog is all about this and a great place to browse. Lately I’ve been doing some ferreting about for myself too, and of course have to share my discoveries.

This time it’s old children’s books in two collections at the University of Florida: the Literature for Children Collection at the University of Florida Library (2455 titles), and the Baldwin Library of Historical Children’s Literature (4787 titles). Cruise the title lists (LCC, Baldwin) and find multiple versions of Robinson Crusoe, Aesop’s Fables, and other classics; various illustrated ABC’s, Annie and the elves, and other stories published in 1852 by the American Sunday-School Union, Around the World with Santa Claus (1891), At war with Pontiac, or, The totem of the bear : a tale of redcoat and redskin (1896)–––and we’re still in the “A” section. [Above are the first two pages from Aunt Louisa’s picture puzzle alphabet (1880).]

Below are a few illustrations from volumes in these collections, and I was assured when I enquired that “Nearly all of the books in this collection [LCC] are public domain. Those that are not are clearly labeled as such. You can use the images freely, although we always appreciate a statement attribution that they came from Literature for Children (” I think the books from the Baldwin Collection would be public domain as well.

These are presented here considerably reduced in size and resolution, compared to the online originals, which are each over 1 MB when saved as pdfs.


Above, the cover from Puss in Boots (c. 1888), illustrations by André, R ( Richard ), 1834-1907 [nom de plume of English artist William Roger Snow].

Below, the “London Cries” page from Aunt Mary’s primer: adorned with a hundred and twenty pretty pictures (1851) shows some of the street pedlars of the city along with their characteristic “cries” to hawk their wares, which gave us phrases such as “Cockles and mussels, alive alive-o!” Also shown are the dustman collecting who knows what (horse manure?) and a “link-boy,” selling his services to light the way of those travelling the unlit streets before gas lighting.


Below, the cover and two pages from A museum of wonders and what the young folks saw there explained in many pictures (1884), text and illustrations by Frederick Burr Opper [Baldwin Library Digital Collection, also at the University of Florida].


Below, the cover and two illustrations from the ABC of Horses (1880)


But there’s more here than quaintness, nostalgia, or public-domain illustrations. Children’s books are always in some way a part of society’s revelation of itself to children, and its effort to shape their attitudes. The very first entry in the alphabetical list of titles is 10 little nigger boys (1890), no author given. A rhyme recounts how a group of ten young black boys gradually becomes only one, as various accidents befall them on their journey. One oversleeps (the most benign incident); one chokes, one is hugged to death by a bear at the zoo, one “cuts himself in half”, you get the idea.


This reminded me of the familiar title Ten Little Indians (Agatha Christie) and I wondered what the connexion was. Wikipedia was the first entry in a Google search and was very informative.

It is Christie’s best-selling novel with 100 million sales to date, making it the world’s best-selling mystery…The novel takes place on an island off the coast of Devon in late 1930s named Indian Island. Eight people of different social classes journey to the Soldier Island mansion are invited there by a Mr. and Mrs. U.N. Owen but the eight people don’t know them. Upon arriving, they are told by the butler and his wife, Thomas and Ethel Rogers, that their hosts are currently away. Each guest finds in his or her room a slightly odd bit of bric-a-brac and a framed copy of the nursery rhyme “Ten Little Soldier Boys” (“Ten Little Niggers” in the original 1939 UK publication and “Ten Little Indians” in the 1940 US publication) hanging on the wall:

Ten little Soldier boys went out to dine;
One choked his little self and then there were nine.
Nine little Soldier boys sat up very late;
One overslept himself and then there were eight.
Eight little Soldier boys traveling in Devon;
One said he’d stay there and then there were seven.
Seven little Soldier boys chopping up sticks;
One chopped himself in halves and then there were six.
Six little Soldier boys playing with a hive;
A bumblebee stung one and then there were five.
Five little Soldier boys going in for law;
One got into Chancery and then there were four.
Four little Soldier boys going out to sea;
A red herring swallowed one and then there were three.
Three little Soldier boys walking in the zoo;
A big bear hugged one and then there were two.
Two Little Soldier boys sitting in the sun;
One got frizzled up and then there was one.
One little Soldier boy left all alone;
He went out and hanged himself and then there were none.


Cover of the first UK edition of this book (from Wikipedia).

Thus we learn, among other things, that in England in 1939 it was acceptable for Agatha Christie to publish her mystery novel under the title Ten Little Niggers in England, but not in the US, the title was changed to And Then There Were None. The book has been filmed a number of times under this latter title, and also as “Ten Little Indians.”

I wonder what black children were reading in 1890, when 10 little nigger boys was published. Books for children were a luxury, whether in white households or black. Was there a parallel endeavor to publish reading material for black kids? Maybe I’ll email the people at the University of Florida again and see what they can tell me.

Science fiction fan wins Nobel Prize

Hold up your heads, science fiction readers! Ansible, the sf news publication by Dave Langford, reports that

Paul Krugman, winner of this year’s Nobel Prize for Economics, is an unashamed sf fan who earlier in the year said of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series: ‘It’s somewhat embarrassing, but that’s how I got into economics: I wanted to be a psychohistorian when I grew up, and economics was as close as I could get.’ (New York Times, 8 May)

Maybe someday “genre” won’t be a putdown when applied to fiction. Have some respect for sf: it is the literature of ideas.

The Pesthouse, by Jim Crace

Another post-apocalypse novel published (like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road) as mainstream fiction rather than science fiction. The Pesthouse (2007) won the National Book Critics Circle Award, and got good reviews, but I’m afraid it left me cold.

It’s a journey, the writing is “sensitive” and competent, the two protagonists suffer and change, the typical after-the-fall elements are present (religious nuts, violent raiders, superstitious greedy villagers)… Maybe if you don’t read sf this would all seem original and riveting, but I got bored and started skimming less than half-way through just to see if anything better came along and to find out how it would end. I think some sf writers have done much better on this theme, though as genre writers they never get much attention. Topics for another day: the genre label, and better stories on this theme.

Searching for a forgotten book?

Lately I have been re-reading science fiction novels and stories I remember from my youth. But in some cases I remembered something about the plot or setting, and nothing of title or author. For example, a story where the alien said to the protagonist, “I trade with you my mind.” Atypically for me, I had a dim recollection that it was by Clifford Simak, but no idea of the title or if maybe it had been in a novel instead.

Where to turn? BookSleuth® to the rescue. This is a branch of the discussion forums run by used-bookseller They have separate US and UK sites; each has its own forums and Booksleuth® section.

Here is the abebooks description of BookSleuthe®:

Is there a special book that you read, or perhaps had read to you, at some point in your life but you can’t remember the author and title? Perhaps you know the plot, or a character, or maybe even what the front cover looks like. BookSleuth® is here to help you find that book! Simply post a short description of what you can remember here on our board. Visitors from all over the world will read your post, and one of them is bound to know exactly what you’re talking about and post a response. Not missing anything? Why not see if you can help anyone else find their long-lost books?

Each of the two forums has some genre divisions: General, Children’s, Romance, Mystery, Non-fiction, Science Fiction. The members who answer questions are real enthusiasts with incredible memories (even for 40-year old short stories!), and their answers sometimes include valuable index-type websites where other such questions can be researched.

I have spent some time cruising questions and answers, even had a try at answering a few. I found that one frequent poster is a bookfinder for a library system, and I am sure she is not the only Booksleuther with such specialized skills.

When I wanted to find a British book, I posted my question in the UK forum. I had few details: it had to do with hand-production of daily objects in a small English village, lots about woodworking, I thought the author’s first name was George, and I read it in the early 70’s. (If you can’t give an approximate date of publication, at least you can narrow the field by saying when you encountered the book). I’d thought about this book for thirty years, longing to re-read it, and had done some searching on the web myself but never even came close. The folks on the UK BookSleuth® forum had an answer for me very soon: The Wheelwright’s Shop, by George Sturt–a book of some renown. Soon I had my very own copy courtesy of Amazon; I shared it with a friend who’s a sign painter immersed in fine hand-craftsmanship, he bought a copy and talked it up to friends, so we’ve got a mini-revival of Sturt’s masterpiece going on this side of the pond.

One tip: if you decide to post a query: use a descriptive title for your post, not “Help, looking for book title” or “Looking for old cookbook”.

Here a a few recent queries:
Kids lost in outback
American Civil War & female cat burglar
A Particular Jewish Cookbook
Children playing casting shadows 1950’s
Type 23 Frigate in an West African coup
Middle East Trucking
Suffragette Story for teen/child reader
Novel with storyline based around chess

Look out, though, cruising these forums is likely to have you adding more books to your future reading list!

And, the same day I posted my inquiry about the “I trade with you my mind” story, I had an answer: it is in the early pages of Simak’s novel Time is the Simplest Thing (1961), which I found in my local library system and am about to start reading.

Will it be as memorable as it was 40 years ago? I’ll get back to you on that. But I looked up some vintage covers of this title, from which I can predict absolutely nothing about the book. Typical of sf cover art!

These are from the Clifford Simak Fan Site, specifically Foreign covers; last two.