Brain research and reading: How emerging concepts in neuroscience support a meaning construction view of the reading process

Emerging concepts from the neuroscientific study of brain function both support and are supported by psycholinguistic research on the reading process. These concepts challenge the claim that brain imaging studies have demonstrated the primacy of phonological processing in reading. While such studies do indeed show that brain imaging technology is sensitive enough to detect sites of increased neural activity during phonological processing, this finding is consistent with both phonics and meaning based models. This is because both models recognize that phonological processing is part of the reading process. Unfortunately, subjects in the various brain imaging studies have not been given phonological processing tasks embedded in a context that requires meaning construction. So while this kind of study could, in principle, distinguish between the two models, it remains to be carried out. In order to better understand how contemporary neuroscience bears on models of the reading process, we therefore turned from neuroimaging studies to current research on how the cortical, “thinking” areas of the brain interact with the brain’s deeper, sensory processing structures. The emerging concepts from this research clearly indicate that the higher cortical structures control the transmission of
information from the deeper structures. This interpretation is contrary to the classical teaching, in which deeper sensory relay stations determine what will eventually reach the cortex. The emerging view has profound implications for psychological models of mental life. Whereas the classical neuroanatomic view is most consistent with a bottom-up, information processing model, the emerging view supports an interactive, constructivist model. The cortex either promotes or inhibits the very input being transmitted to it from the eyes, ears, and other sensory receptors. The psychological interpretation of this neuroanatomic arrangement is that the cortex selects evidence to confirm or disconfirm its predictions. It anticipates what will be seen and heard using knowledge stored in memory. Both this new neuroanatomical view and its psychological reflection are consistent with a transactional sociopsycholinguistic model of reading. Drawing on extensive comparisons of expected and observed responses from oral reading miscue studies, this model of reading emphasizes the fundamental importance of effective and efficient prediction and confirmation in the construction of meaning. Eye movement analysis, a widely used reading research tool for over a century, simultaneously supports the
emerging neuroscientific view of cortical control and the meaning construction model of reading. Since the most conspicuous motor behavior in silent reading is eye movement, studying it allows us to “see” the silent reading process. When combined with miscue analysis from oral reading, it is clear that cortical instructions tell the eyes where to look for cues from the signal, lexico-grammatical, and semantic levels of language. We conclude that emerging neuroscience provides evidence for the meaningconstruction view of reading, and that the ransactional socio-psycholinguistic character of reading is an instantiation of the memory-prediction model of brain function.

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