Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Reading and the Brain ~ A Brief History

I thought it would be beneficial to begin our discussion of The Shallows:  What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains with a new twist on an old history lesson.  We all know that stories were primarily passed down orally until Gutenberg’s printing press put books and reading into the mainstream.  It wasn’t until around the Middle Ages that written language grew steadily and the availability of books and, as a result, the number of literate people increased.

As an aside, Thamus and Socrates believed that the written language would be detrimental to knowledge, wisdom and memory.  Thamus wrote, “It will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks.” (pgs. 54-55)  This fear was misplaced, of course.  As Erasmus stated, the passages found in books were as “kinds of flowers, which, plucked from the pages of books, could be preserved in the pages of memory.  (pg. 178)  It is through the pages of books that we are able to process deeply and personally understand and relate to our reading.

Early writing was a continuous line of characters (can you imagine!) but by the 13th century, scribes had begun imposing rules on word order as well as dividing words and sentences by spaces and punctuation.  At this point readers became not only more efficient but also more attentive.  

Our natural inclination is to be highly distracted by outside stimuli.  But “to read a book was to practice an unnatural process of thought, one that demanded sustained, unbroken attention to a single, static object.”  (pg. 64)  “In the quiet spaces opened up by the prolonged, undistracted reading of a book, people made their own associations, drew their own inferences and analogies, fostered their own ideas.  They thought deeply as they read deeply.”  (pg. 65)

Imagine the effects on the brain itself.  Learning to read is not a natural act.  It’s much like playing the violin.  Our minds have to be taught to translate the symbols we see into language we understand.  This requires massive neurological wiring.  It was interesting to me to learn that the mental circuitry for reading Chinese is vastly different from those reading a phonetic alphabet.  That probably explains why my Chinese son, who was adopted at the age of 6, struggled with reading English for two years even though he could speak the language fluently.  Think of the rewiring that had to happen in his little brain!

This topic of neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to change as a result of stimuli, is a fascinating testament to our Creator’s hand.  We are indeed fearfully and wonderfully made.  However, because of this marvelous ability of our brains, we have the responsibility to see that we are choosing the good things.  As we continue to look at the effects of our habits on our brains as it applies to reading, I pray we will consciously guard our minds for the glory of God.

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