Cognitive neuroscience points the way beyond disputes pitting biological causes for behavior against cultural, experiential ones. Dehaene argues compellingly that the cultural tools of reading and arithmetic build directly on fundamental brain processes that are present in infants and other mammals. Common ideas in debates about learning and education seem old-fashioned and outmoded from this viewpoint – ideas such as that the mind/brain is a blank slate at birth, that there are innate, fixed mental organs, and that the brain is a learning machine capable of learning almost anything. The evidence is particularly clear regarding elementary numbers in arithmetic and the forms of letters in the alphabet. Specific, small cortical areas in the parietal lobe in primates and human infants are essential components for automatically detecting numerosity, even though has been no experience with the Arabic symbols for numbers. Indeed, there are even specific neurons tuned to different quantities from 1 to 5. Lesions in these areas produce acalculia (a number deficit). For reading, some restricted visual areas are dedicated to object recognition and to minute details of forms in space, invariant to size, position, or symmetry. These networks seem to form the foundation for building letter shapes, thus setting up the potential for children to learn the alphabet. Lesions in these areas produce alexia or dyslexia. For both mathematics and literacy, cultural objects (numbers and letters) make use of pre-existing brain architectures. In this way education can be understood as a ‘neuronal recycling process’ that builds on cortical structures.
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