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Evolution, the developing brain and the power of reading

Alison Gopnik wrote The Philosophical Baby back in 2009 and I think that in it she tells us many things about the development of children’s minds which enable us to see the importance of reading in a new light. This post will just cover some of my early thoughts on the inter-relationship of these ideas – others, with a more scientific background, may be able to develop them further.

One of Gopnik’s central claims is that the pre-frontal cortex of a person’s brain is not fully developed until they reach around their mid 20s. This part of the brain is the most plastic, changing considerably during childhood as a result of experience. For educators this is a great endorsement for the growth mindset approach, as it shows that effort, practice and determination are more important in developing skills than the initial hard-wiring that many people feel limits their potential. In relation to the development of the pre-frontal cortex, Gopnik emphasises the importance of play, or counterfactuals in allowing a young person to imaginatively explore a vast range of options that aren’t options in the non-play world we find ourselves in. This imaginative exploration is what shapes our pre-frontal cortex and ultimately forms the kind of people that we become. As Gopnik says

Plays are play, and so are novels, paintings and songs.

Thus, the role of literature, reading and stories in the development of the young mind is vital. Whilst I feel that many teachers are fully aware of this important link in a general or abstract way, it is crucial that the real, concrete impact that reading can have on brain development is emphasised highly so as to make the case for the curricular centrality of imaginative reading.

Gopnik then goes on to look at the Heraclitian idea that no one ever steps in the same river twice. On the second occasion both the person and the river are different entities from those involved in the earlier experience. The person has been changed by all the experiences they have had since the first, including their processing of the previous encounter with the river. This concept also has a reading parallel. No one, particularly children, it could be said, ever reads the same book twice. By the time we approach a book a second time, our brain, as we have seen, has been altered by the very experience of reading it on the previous occasion. Clearly, if we have a strong memory of the book this will alter the subsequent reading experience, but even if we have no recollection of it at all, all the intervening play experiences that we have had will have fired our imaginations and thus helped reform our pre-frontal cortex in myriad different ways.

The extended period of brain immaturity puts great additional burdens on all of us who are parents as our children remain children for much longer than the young of other species. During this time of care-giving, in all its different forms, parents are using their own capacities, developed during their own youth when their own brains were plastic. So, the imaginative experiences and reading that our parents did and which formed them into the people they are provides them with the emotional resilience to see us, their children, through this extended developmental period. Therefore, we are not just the product of our own early reading but also that of our parents. In the same way, our children’s development will be hugely influenced by our own imaginative experience of counterfactuals in books, stories and comics. Could there be a more powerful argument for the vital importance of reading, for the experience of whole texts to be central to school life, for parents sharing stories and rhymes with their children, for investment in libraries and for the cherishing of authors and poets?

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