Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Proust and the Squid: the story and science of the reading brain

by Maryanne Wolf

I've read a bunch of other books about brains, so I was really excited to read this book. It turned out to be a little less science-y than I was expecting, and somewhat repetitive in certain sections, but overall it was a worthwhile read. What I took away from the experience is not so much a feeling for the science as an appreciation of the complexity of the reading process and, consequently, how many opportunities there are for failures in learning to read.

The author covers what is known of the history and origin of writing, and therefore reading, including Socrates' arguments against written language. There's also discussion of how readers of different kinds of languages — alphabetic, logographic, syllabic, etc. — utilize different brain structures and can form different kinds of connections among parts of their brains, as well as mention of how eye movements and use of peripheral vision allow the reader continuously to scan ahead and behind instead of focussing letter by letter or word by word. (Although it may feel as if you're only aware of one or a few words at a time, this kind of scanning and awareness is essential for understanding grammar and for selecting meanings and pronunciations of individual words.)

The middle portion of the book talks about the different stages of learning to read: from phonemic awareness in the pre-reader; through sounding out words and understanding how individual sounds are joined together to form words (as well as the correspondence between letters and various sounds); grasping increasingly complex grammatical and narrative structures; all the way to fluent, nearly unconscious reading that allows even higher levels of emotional and intellectual engagement and interpretation.

The section discussing dyslexia and other reading problems, in which the author suggest that non-standard brain functioning that results in reading difficulties might confer other advantages by fostering other ways of thinking and imagining — witness the many geniuses and artists believed or known to have been dyslexic — this section was less interesting to me.

The end of the book just dips into a subject I've been very interested in lately: how is technology and media affecting the way we think and the ways our brains function? Harkening back to Socrates, the author acknowledges that it's all to easy to distrust the future, only to find out the dooms-day predictions were unfounded, but she also makes it clear that we're in a time of increasingly rapid changes to how we produce, store, and consume information, and it would behoove us to conscientiously examine what's worth preserving even as we adapt to the ineluctable transformations.

One thing Socrates warned against regarding written language was the potential for false and unfounded belief in the apparent truthfulness of the printed word, simply because it's printed. Some modern intellectuals see the same danger today in many people's willingness to accept the validity of the first one or two Google results — a danger compounded by the fact that those results are manipulable by site owners, and that Google's customer is the advertiser not the searcher.

Socrates also worried that the ability to record information (and then, presumably, to forget it) would lead to degraded memory and intellectual abilities. To the contrary, the advent of written language opened up new mental terrain, perhaps in part because the brain adaptations required for reading (new connections among brain parts, analytical speed and precision in multiple brain areas, etc.) allowed the thinking brain to make new conjectures and associations. (The simple fact of having recorded knowledge in itself facilitated juxtaposition, interpolation, expansion, and creation of ideas.)

So what happens to our brains now, faced with an exponentially expanding store of knowledge and a technology to access that information that divides attention and replaces self-made inferences and connections with the illusion of endless connectivity, links, and tangents? The effects surely aren't all bad, but there is cause for concern The author and I aren't the only ones thinking about this: check out these articles from NPR and the BBC.

Now, I realize this post is getting pretty long (partly why I gave you the links instead of summarizing myself), but I want to go on a little tirade before I wrap it up. Something I thought about while reading this book is the phenomenon of people who say "I'm a visual learner". Of course, all sorts of input, including audio-visual and experiential, can be valuable ways of learning. I have a nagging sense, however, that "I'm a visual learner" is too often a smoke screen concealing the truth that "I don't read well and my reading comprehension is not what it should be". This bothers me because there's the connected phenomenon of saying it's OK for students not to be able to read well and/or to watch a video as a substitute for reading because they are visual learners. Furthermore, given the multimedia nature of the interwebs, technology and "2.0" boosters have a tendency to glorify visual learning as the future and salvation of learning and teaching. I've actually heard a speaker at a conference suggest it would be better to have a medical procedure from someone who watched a video about how to do it as opposed to someone who read about how to do it in a textbook. I don't know about you, but I'd like to think medical professionals are doing more than one or the other! False analogies aside, I'm a little suspicious of the video-watcher; if they have poor reading comprehension, surely that has implications for their other mental capacities and their capability in general.

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