The Neuroscience of Reading – Part 1

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The course location: the Stata Center at MIT

I currently have the privilege of attending a Learning and the Brain summer institute on the Neuroscience of Reading with Dr. John Gabrieli and Dr. Joanna Christodoulou on the MIT campus in Cambridge.  My goal through this course will be to gain a better understanding of how the neuroscience of reading can directly inform our practices at the classroom level. *Disclaimer: I am using this blog post (and the ones that follow) as a means of processing and making meaning of the material that I am learning at this course.  Although I will make every effort to ensure that my statements are accurate, I am sure that there will be areas of my understanding that contain inaccuracies or are not fully developed.  As with the beginnings of learning anything, we tend to begin with areas of inaccuracies and the more we learn, the better we can self-identify and correct our misunderstandings. Today was an introductory day.  We didn’t really delve into the depths of reading (that will come tomorrow) but it was fascinating nonetheless.  We went to the neuroscience area of the MIT campus and were exposed to two of the dominant research methods that are utilized in educational neuroscience: fMRIs and EEGs.

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Watching data be generated as a participant undergoes fMRI testing.

fMRIs (functional magnetic resonance imaging) are similar to regular MRIs and are conducted in the same type of machine.  The difference is that a regular MRI highlights structure whereas and fMRI shows what the brain is doing.  For an fMRI, the participant is asked to engage in a specific task or is exposed to specific stimuli.  As the brain responds to the task or stimuli, it uses energy in that area of the brain.  The energy that that part of the brain utilizes needs to be replaced, so there is an increased blood flow to that area to deliver oxygen and glucose.  The oxygenated blood that is coming into that area has a lower concentration of iron due to a higher concentration of oxygen.  Iron has magnetic properties and thus can be detected by the magnets in the MRI machine.  Thus, the machine is able to indicate areas where there is a change of concentration of iron, and therefore a change in the level of oxygenated and deoxygenated blood.  There also are some structural changes to the activated area of the brain in terms of its actual volume and such, but those are technicalities that we didn’t really go into.  The MRI machine at MIT is a three million dollar machine of great importance in the world of educational neuroscience. They have an MRI-safe baby cradle that is used to conduct MRIs on 6-8 month babies.  For the older children, a training room is utilized for them to learn to be comfortable with the machine and to learn to lie still.  The children go into the practice machine and are shown a movie, but a special camera attachment in this set-up detects motion and when/if they move their head, the video turns off, and when they lie still, it turns on again.  This is used to help train the children to lie still so that a higher percentage of useable data will be generated.

The MRI-safe baby cradle.

The MRI-safe baby cradle.

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The MRI training room for children.

A participant is prepped for an EEG.

A participant is prepped for an EEG.

We also were shown how EEGs work and looked at the benefits and limitations of fMRIs as compared to EEGs.  EEGs are cheaper to administer and are less intimidating than MRIs.  They give nearly instantaneous data (data appears within milliseconds of the brain processing), however they don’t locate the specific region of the brain that is being activated.  fMRIs give much more specific information regarding the area of the brain that is activated, however the lag time between the brain activity and the generation of data is longer.  It takes time for the blood to travel to the activated part of the brain so there is a lag before the activation is visible. Armed with this information about the research methods used, Dr. Gabrieli gave a presentation showing various data that have been collected and what was learned from the data.  There was much of interest in what he shared but a few things in particular were noteworthy for me.

Thinning of the cerebral cortex through childhood and adolescence: Gabrieli showed data to indicate that the cerebral cortex is very thick in babies and then thins out over the childhood and adolescent years.  He provided some staggering statistics about the rate of cortex growth:

  • it is estimated that during the seventh week of embryonic development, 500,000 neurons develop per minute
  • at its peak growth, the brain develops 1.8 million synapses per second

and some staggering statistics about its thinning:

  • we lose 20 billion synapses per day into adolescence (therefore it’s not surprising that things can go awry).

A sophisticated method of selection determines which neurons are useful and will stay and which are not useful and will go. Gabrieli shared some seemingly contradictory findings about the natural, expected process of cortex thinning but some correlations between desirable situations (high test scores and high socio-economic status) and thicker cortexes.  I will be interested to continue to follow this area of study as further research unfolds in this area.  I’m curious as to the practical implications of cortex thinning and neuron death and how/if that factors into education.

Brain plasticity: Another finding that was of particular interest to me was that of the capacity of the brain to structurally change.  He shared of a well-known study on taxi drivers in London, England.  Becoming certified to drive a taxi there is an intense and complex undertaking and requires developing a detailed mental map of the city.  The study showed that these drivers developed a larger hippocampus than the average person.  This seems not to be an issue of correlation but of causation – it seems that the enlarging of the hippocampus happened as a result of the development of the mental map of London, since the enlarged hippocampus was not evident prior to the internalizing of the map. This finding is quite intriguing to me.  I did not realize that the brain had such an ability to structurally change.  That it not only has such an ability but can do that as expertise is developed in a certain area is incredibly promising in the area of education.  This corresponds very strongly with the notion of growth mindset (Carol Dweck) and speaks to the fact that we can, in fact, physically develop areas of our brain so as to expand our abilities to carry out specific skills.  This has huge implications in the classroom and very much validates Dweck’s message.

Co-responsive brain activation A third area of interest was learning that the brain can be activated by indirect stimuli.  Gabrieli shared how viewing loved ones in pain activates the same areas of the brain as when we experience our own pain.  Likewise, imagining an event activates the same areas of the brain as experiencing that event.  (MIT recently published some findings on the implications of this in the treatment of depression).  It seems to me that this would have significant implications in empathy training in children and in character/moral education.  This is another area that I’ll have to note for further reading.

Ethics The last area that I will highlight is that of ethics.  All science has ethics embedded into it, and sometimes it’s in areas where one might not expect.  Gabrieli shared how we can artificially manipulate the brain so that the individual can learn much more effectively.  My understanding is that this (at least currently) is quite an invasive thing but it begs the question about the ethics behind that.  Ethics in science tend to pose the question of “does the fact that we can mean that we should?” Artificially manipulating a person’s capacity to learn sounds like playing with fire to me. Earlier in the day, Dr. Christodoulou was speaking about some of the ethics of pre-diagnosing, treating, and thus eradicating some neurological conditions.  If we could eradicate such things as dyslexia and autism, would that be beneficial?  It goes without saying that there would be enormous ethical implications with that.  For further reading, check out the concept of neurodiversity.  John Elder Robinson explains it well here.


In summary, the brain is an amazing and complex organ which still contains much to be discovered.  There are many implications of neuroscientific research in the world of education and this is an area that needs to continue to be developed and studied.  Teachers need to ensure that they are aware of the world of research that is happening in this area and work towards using that data to better inform instruction.  I’m looking forward to learning much more on this in the subsequent days of this course, and then to continuing to further develop my own understanding of educational neuroscience through my own continued self-study.

Related posts:  The Neuroscience of Reading – Part 2  The Neuroscience of Reading – Part 3 Dear Friend with Dyslexia

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