D-Lib Magazine
April 1998

ISSN 1082-9873

From the Editor

Thinking about thinking

In a recent issue of The Brain in the News (Vol 5, No. 5, March 13, 1998)[1], Gina Kolata of The New York Times reports on Sally and Bennett Shaywitz's ongoing research into reading and the brain. Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), they observed 29 adults with dyslexia and 32 adults who read "easily" perform a series of progressively more difficult reading tasks. The MRI scans enabled the investigators to see which parts of the brain were active depending on the complexity of the reading task. They discovered that dyslexics were unable to use certain pathways in the brain and that the part of the brain that was not active paired words with sound. These results were consistent with observations of stroke victims whose reading ability had been impaired.

This is exciting. As Sally Shaywitz observed in a story for Scientific American,[2] the research she undertook with her husband and their colleagues at Yale University followed twenty years of work by neuroscientists, psychologists, and physicians. These investigations, enabled in part by new information technologies, such as MRI, explored brain organization and function, and exploded conceptions about notions of intelligence, gender, reading, and writing. Specifically, highly intelligent people could still have trouble reading. Dyslexia is equally common in boys and girls, and eye training is not an adequate treatment, since dyslexia is a linguistic deficit.

The research has profound implications for education and for linguistics. Do we teach phonics? How is language represented in symbols, and how does the brain "process" those representations? Evidently, not wholly visually, since our ability to "hear" them clearly affects our ability to understand them.

If the implications of this work for early childhood education are obvious, the connection to our world of on-line information is, perhaps, more removed but no less real. Quite simply, we expect people to view the screen and to read what is displayed on it, typically either in text, images (e.g., the work that is being done in visual languages and representations of information), or combinations of both. Perceptions of users tend to figure prominently in issues of design but should inform information retrieval as well, since IR -- like reading -- is a cognitive process. European IR researchers have already started down this path[3] as have Amanda Spink, Tom Wilson, and their colleagues, described this month in their story on successive searching; Ben Shneiderman, Bruce Croft, and others[4]. Nevertheless, observing searchers' behavior is the proverbial tip of the iceberg. There are many and deeper issues here, and many disciplines to be invited to the IR table.

Brain research, like cognitive science, neuro- and microbiology, is among the great achievements in multidisciplinary scientific investigation since 1945. Enabled by advances in the experimental apparatus, like MRI, physicists, chemists, biologists, and others scrutinized the molecular structure, rebuilding notions of human organs -- like the brain -- from the ground up and in so doing are truly revolutionizing our thought. In digital libraries, our notions of "thought" occur at a higher, perhaps coarser but more complex level, and experiments tend to focus on observations of behavior. But behavior is a complex phenomenon made up of layers of psychology, society, and culture. What the Shaywitzes' research is telling us is that cognitive behavior itself starts much deeper, and eventually we will have to understand our cells to understand ourselves.

Amy Friedlander

[1]The Brain in the News is a publication of The Charles A. Dana Foundation. The publication consists of reprints of stories that have appeared in the major newspapers on the topic of brain research.

[2]The story, "Dyslexia," first appeared in November 1996. The on-line version is available at: <http://www.sciam.com/1196issue/1196shaywitz.html>. One of the advantages of the on-line version is the thread to subsequent letters to the editor to which the author has responded. She notes in March 1997, that observations of the congenitally deaf suggest that they experience greater difficulties learning to read and that their observations of the relationship between sound and languages hold across languages. In response to a question about Chinese, mistakenly considered an ideographic and not phonetically based written language, she responds: "in Chinese, just as in English, good readers can be distinguished from poor readers based on their relative efficiency of phonologic processing." See Letters to the Editor, Scientific American, March 1997, http://www.sciam.com/0397issue/0397letters.html.

[3]See Mira: Evaluation Frameworks for Interactive Multimedia Information Retrieval Applications. Mira is a working group concentrating on the evaluation of Multimedia Information Retrieval Systems, in particular interactive systems.

[4]See, for example, Ben Shneiderman, W. Bruce Croft, and Don Byrd, Clarifying Search: A User-Interface Framework for Text Searches, January 1997; Nancy A. Van House, Mark H. Butler, Virginia Ogle, and Lisa Schiff, User-Centered Iterative Design for Digital Libraries: The Cypress Experience, February 1996.


Copyright (c) 1998 Corporation for National Research Initiatives

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