Reading and the Human Brain

My six-year-old grandson speaks English well.  He uses nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives and all the rest with complete ease.  He speaks in the present tense, past tense, and future tense without ever thinking about it, and his vocabulary includes the hard-to-pronounce names of numerous dinosaurs.  His five-year-old sister is right behind him.  Now think about this: neither child has ever had a language lesson.  They don’t need them because we are genetically programmed for speech at birth.  All we need to trigger that ability is a few years of life and exposure to other people speaking.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of reading.  We have to be taught to read because that ability is not built into our genes.  Reading is foreign to the human brain.  In fact, writing and reading are only about 3,000 years old.  The Greeks only starting writing after borrowing an alphabet from the Phoenicians over 2,500 years ago. Before then, they had to memorize everything – including Homer’s epic poems The Iliad and The Odyssey.  Many people believe that they actually sang the poems and that seems plausible to me since we seem to have the ability to remember better when our words are put to music.  Think about it:  how many poems do you remember?  How many song lyrics do you remember?  I can’t recite many poems, but I remember the lyrics to songs I sang as a kid, and that was a long, long time ago.

So if reading is foreign to the human brain, how did we ever learn to do it?  Well, according to Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain by researcher Maryanne Wolf, we owe it all to the adaptability of the human brain.  She contends that our brains learned to recognize written symbols as representatives for the words we normally only heard.  Using something referred to as a fMRI researches can even tell you what part (or parts) of our brains are modified for reading. 

I’m being noncommittal about the exact parts of our brains that are activated when we read for two reasons: I’m leaving the technical stuff for Dr. Wolf to tell you, and I’m doing it because more than one location in the brain can be responsible for our ability to read.  She claims that if you learn to read English, and then try to learn to read using the 2,000 or so Chinese symbols, your brains has to start from scratch in a location different from where your ability to read English is stored! 

Unfortunately not all brains are wired so that they can learn to read efficiently.  The condition is termed dyslexia, and Dr. Wolf is researching the topic in part because one of her children is dyslexic. Her discussion  of dyslexia will interest anyone who is dyslexic or knows someone who is.  She also talks about the stigma that dyslexic students face because they can’t read like the other kids.  Unfortunately, teachers have not always recognized the problem and have at times accused the students with dyslexia of just being lazy.

Wolf recounts in detail the fascinating story of how reading developed, and points out which area of our brain are used in the process of reading.  Most of her book is very readable, but it gets a bit more technical at times than I could appreciate.  Overall, the book is well constructed and I highly recommend it.

An additional concern – which she discusses in Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital Age – is the effect that reading on digital devices is having on our brains.  Early research seems to shows that reading an actual book and reading the same book in the form of an ebook are not equivalent.  A term she often uses is “deep reading,” and it seems that we may not be able to read a physical book and an identical ebook with the same depth of understanding.  Since this is a relatively new technology we don’t have enough evidence from studies to show how the different reading techniques compare.

Another problem she discusses is the difficulty of finding something you’ve read in an ebook versus a physical book.  I lead the discussions in my Reading the Classics Book Club, and over the years I’ve increasingly read ebook versions of the assigned works.  I’m about to go back to actual books because I find it very difficult to quickly find information in ebooks.  According to Wolf, research seems to indicate that I’m not the only one facing this problem.  The research on this and other matters is inconclusive right now because this is a relatively recent research field, but Wolf is quite concerned, and she may be right to feel the way she does.  The ability to read is a precious gift to me, and I hate to think that my beloved grandchildren and their children might inadvertently be doing something that would imperil their hard-earned ability to read. 

Wolf is also concerned that the internet is having an adverse effect on us.  We are becoming so dependent on the internet that we aren’t bothering to remember things the way we used to.  Also, many people (including my grandson) are spending many hours each day playing mindless, repetitive, and addictive games rather than interacting with other people or reading.

Let me leave you with five quotes from Reader, Come Home that summarize Wolf’s fears about the dangers of moving from print books to ebooks, and our ever increasing interest in the internet and all that is enticing about it.

“What concerns me as a scientist is whether expert readers like us, after multiple hours (and years) of daily screen reading, are subtly changing the allocation of our attention to key processes when reading longer, more demanding texts. Will our quality of attention in reading — the basis of the quality of our thought — change inexorably as our culture transitions away from a print–based culture toward a digital one? What are the cognitive threats to and the promises of such a transition ?”

“Tristan Harris is a Silicon Valley technology expert whose knowledge about the ‘persuasion design’ principles in various apps and devices led him to become an outspoken critic of how features based on these principles are intentionally selected to addict users. Josh Elman, another Silicon Valley expert who applauds Harris’s efforts, compares the use of the addictive features of various devices to the tobacco industry’s use of addiction-forming nicotine before the link with cancer was discovered. The founder of the advocacy initiative Time Well Spent, Harris recently stated in interviews with PBS and The Atlantic, ‘Never before in history have the decisions of a handful of designers (mostly men, white, living in San Francisco, aged 25–35) working at three companies’ — Google, Apple, and Facebook — ‘had so much impact on how millions of people around the world spend their attention . . . . We should feel an enormous responsibility to get this right.’”

“A fascinating study by Julie Coiro looked at preferences for reading by seventh-graders. Her most thought-provoking result was that the highest-performing print readers were often the lowest-performing online readers, and the converse.”

“No self-respecting internal review board at any university would allow a researcher to do what our culture has already done with no adjudication or previous evidence: introduce a complete, quasi-addictive set of attention-compelling devices without knowing the possible side effects and ramifications for the subjects (our kids).”

“We need to ensure that human beings do not fall into the trap that Edward Tenner described when he said, ‘It would be a shame if brilliant technology were to end up threatening the kind of intellect that produced it.’”

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