Monday, 18 November 2013

The neurological mechanics of reading revealed in Proust and The Squid

From The Week of November 10th, 2013

Of the many gifts with which evolution has blessed us, none are as consequential as humanity's ability to adapt. Our physiological capacity to endure the cold and the heat, the dry and the damp, the grim and the barren, have ensured the continuance of our species, but even these achievements pale in power next to the might of neuroplasticity, the ability of the human brain to literally re-program itself in response to the necessities of the individual. In the event that areas of the brain are damaged, malformed, or even underutilized, neuroplasticity allows the brain to re-task its other regions in order to regain necessary skills. It is a wonder that has saved and empowered humanity countless times, and yet, little did we know the critical role it has played in our capacity to read. Maryanne Wolf explains in her engaging work.

Without the written word, we would not have civilization. It's a grand claim, and yet, there can be little arguing it. After all, the written word has been, throughout our history, the most stable means by which to transmit information from generation to generation. Oral traditions served admirably well in the many millennia prior to the advent of alphabets, but such a means for knowledge transfer is highly unstable, subject to misremembering and misinterpretation, not to mention genocide. More than the accumulation of knowledge, though, the written word has given us complex mathematics with which we've built up a world capable of delivering us to the stars. A substantial achievement for something that does not come naturally to the human brain.

From signs to messages, from magazines to novels, we read every day, largely without conscious effort. And yet, in Proust and The Squid, Ms. Wolf argues that this fundamental element of our daily existence is, to us, an unnatural process, one that we have trained ourselves to perform. Drawing on her own research, as well as work from neuroscientists and linguists, she describes how reading is an outgrowth of the brain's capacity to recognize patterns and to extract meaning from them. This evolutionary talent, no doubt the result of the necessities of survival, is, in the reader, cultivated, over some 2,000 hours of intense training, into a system by which the individual can associate shapes with letters, letters with sounds, and sounds with language, creating a closed, linguistic circuit that allows us to not only communicate with our fellows but to imbibe knowledge from the troves of information left to us by the countless members of humanity who have come and gone.

Proust and The Squid is more than a rumination on the mechanics of reading, however. It is an examination of the many manifestations of this talent, how languages based on alphabets and hieroglyphs make different neurological connections, and how these connections can sometimes go astray. The most famous of these maladaptations is dyslexia, a disability Ms. Wolf has clearly studied at length. For these disabilities, and the social and emotional price they exact upon their sufferers, inject passion into the author's work here, transforming it from a thing of pure science to something of a call to arms, to understand and to eliminate such challenges.

While Proust and The Squid is, at times, fascinating and inspiring, it is plagued by a troubling narrowness of perspective. Ms. Wolf uses several admittedly potent statistics correlating reading with personal success to argue that it is a talent that must be cultivated for a full and informed life. But this advocacy seems to run completely counter to her fundamental premise, that reading is an unnatural cultivation of a neurological system that isn't designed to actualize it. Is it truly possible for reading to be so profoundly important when it is clearly not intrinsic to our natures? Is it not possible that reading is, rather, the most obvious means of knowledge transfer for the present? Ms. Wolf is alarmed by the propensity of our newest generation to immerse themselves in a world of touchscreens rather than books. And yet, touchscreens seem to be far more in line with the brain's natural visual systems than reading is. Perhaps, in the future, we will discover other means of knowledge transfer that are more efficient than the laborious programming of alphabets.

In this vein, that Ms. Wolf completely ignores those who read through listening is deeply disturbing. Entire industries have been created to service the many communities that either prefer or depend upon audiobooks for learning. In fact, I read Proust and The Squid as an audiobook because I lack a visual means to consume it. By Ms. Wolf's logic here, I too am cause for concern because I've chosen another way to learn. The author's alarmism over new technologies is a rejection of the very glory that gave us reading in the first place, our ability to adapt. Trust seems in order here, not dismay.

An interesting read, but one that is far more interested in providing encouragement to the dyslexic than it is in recognizing and mitigating its author's own lack of foresight... (3/5 Stars)


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