Humans have a remarkable ability to invent symbols systems such as Arabic numerals or the alphabet. This capacity is unique in the animal kingdom. Thus, one has to ask what is so special about the human brain that allows it to expand its functionality by acquiring new cultural tools.
Reading, for instance, was invented only about 5400 years ago, and symbolic arithmetic is even more recent: the Arabic notation and most of its associated algorithms were not available even a thousand years ago. Thus, it is logically impossible that there exist dedicated brain mechanisms evolved for reading or symbolic arithmetic.
For a long time, reading was really only just a kind of adjunct to oral communication because most of human history was just conversed and exchanged information through speech.
And so one of the fascinating things about early writing on slates, on papyrus, even on early handwritten books, is for instance, there were no space between the words. People just wrote in continuous script. And that’s because that’s the way we hear speech. You now, when somebody’s talking to us, they’re not putting pauses – or carefully putting pauses between words. It all flows together. The problem with that though is that it’s very hard to read. A lot of your mental energy goes to figuring out where does one word end and the next begin.
And as a result, all reading was done in the early years out loud, there was no such thing as silent reading because you had to read out loud in order to figure out you know, where was a word ending and where is the word beginning.
It was only in around the year 800 or 900 that we saw the introduction of word spaces. And suddenly reading became, in a sense, easier and suddenly you had to arrival of silent reading, which changed the act of reading from just transcription of speech to something that every individual did on their own.
The skill of reading is special – and often difficult to acquire. The fact that anyone learns how to read is something of a miracle. Learning to read is very different from learning to speak; in the development of human history, speaking precedes reading by thousands of years.
While virtually anyone who wants to do so can train his or her brain to the habits of long-form reading, in any given culture, few people will want to. And that’s to be expected. Serious “deep attention” reading has always been and will always be a minority pursuit, a fact that has been obscured in the past half-century, especially in the United States.
At first sight, reading seems close to magical: our gaze lands on a word, and our brain effortlessly gibes us access to its meaning and pronunciation. But in spite of appearances, the process is far from simple.
Reading poses a difficult perceptual problem. We must identify words regardless of how they appear whether in print or handwritten, in upper- or lowercase, and regardless of their size. This is what psychologists call the invariance problem: we need to recognize which aspect of a word does not vary – the sequence of letters – in spite of the thousand and one possible shapes that the actual characters can take on.
Upon entering the retina, a word is split up into a myriad of fragments, as each part of the visual image is recognized by a distinct photoreceptor. Starting from this input, the real challenge consists in putting the pieces back together in order to decode what letters are present, to figure out the order in which they appear, and finally to identify the word.
Steven Pinker once said that “Children are wired for sound, but print is an optional accessory that must be painstakingly bolted on.” The key here is “painstakingly”: There can be many pains, in multiple senses of the word, for all parties involved, and it cannot be surprising that many of the recipients of the bolting aren’t overly appreciative, and that even those who are appreciative don’t find the procedure notably pleasant.
The word “school” derives from scholia, meaning leisure.
So it’s important to dissociate reading from academic life, not just because teachers and professors make reading so much more dutiful and good-for-you than it ought to be, but also because the whole environment of school is simply alien to what long-form reading has been for almost all of its history.
Over the last several years an alarming trend has developed regarding our children’s reading abilities. Nationally there is a significant discrepancy between our nation’s boys and girls reading scores. Boys routinely perform at much lower levels than girls on standardized reading assessments. This is especially true in the middle and high school years. Several researchers have attempted to understand why this trend is occurring while others have worked to devise strategies for combating this gender gap.
It’s commonplace in the history of technology for people to insiste that “human biology” or the “human brain” simply cannot cope with the new technology or that our minds and bodies have been put at risk be that technology. What this line of argument overlooks is that the brain is not static. It is built for learning and is changed by what it encounters and what operations it performs. Retooled by the tools we use, our brain adjusts and adapts.
Rationally, we know that reading is the foundation stone of all education, and therefore an essential underpinning of the knowledge economy. So reading is – or should be – an aspect of public policy. But perhaps even more significant is its emotional role as the starting point for individual voyages of personal development and pleasure. Books can open up emotional, imaginative and historical landscapes that equal and extend the corridors of the web. They can help create and reinforce our sense of self.
Rarely has education been about teaching children, adolescents, or young adults how to read lengthy and complicated texts with sustained, deep, appreciative attention—at least, not since the invention of the printing press.
If kids must face the challenges of this new, global, distributed information economy, what are we doing to structure the classroom of the twenty first century to help them? In this time of massive change, we’re giving our kids the tests and lesson plans designed for their great-grand-parents.
The workplace isn’t much different. Unless you happen to be employed at the famous Googleplex, your office might still look like something out of a Charles Dickens novel – or a Dilbert cartoon, which is to say the same thing. Small cubicles or offices all in a tow are another feature of the industrial age and the workplace of the late 19th and 20th centuries. Is this really the most effective way to work in the 21st?
Is it possible for a whole society to have attention blindness?
We seem to be absorbed right now in counting the equivalent of digital basketballs: fretting about multitasking, worrying over distraction, barking about all the things our kids don’t know. We’re ALL missing the gorilla in the room. We are missing the significance of the information age that is standing right in the midst of our lives, defiantly thumping her chest. It’s not that we haven’t noticed this change. Actually, we’re pretty obsessed with it. What we haven’t done yet is rethink how we need to be organizing institutions – our schools our offices – to maximize the opportunities of our digital era.
If reading were to decline significantly, it would change the very nature of our species. If we, in the future, are no longer wired for solitary reflection and creative thought, we will be diminished.
With the transfer now of text more and more onto screens, we see, I think, a new and in some ways more primitive way of reading.
Today’s college crowd has a tool we did not: the search engine. Search engines are a blessing.Want to learn tap dancing in Austin? Lessons are just a few clicks away. So are the words spoken by the White Rabbit in “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” or every reference to dogs in “The Canterbury Tales.” Between Microsoft Word’s “find” function, Project Gutenberg, Amazon’s “Search Inside” feature and Google Print, seeking out precise fragments of information has become child’s play.
So when a child has a reading disability, the problem is bigger than a lack of interest in a topic. You need to restore badly damaged self-confidence before you can help your child to learn to read better. Remember that children cannot learn when they feel that they are stupid. They often do not even try because they have learned that failure makes them feel bad. If they don’t try to learn, they cannot fail. You need to overcome these feelings and set them up to succeed at something.
The challenges surrounding how we learn to think about how we read should raise profound questions. They have implications for us intellectually, socially and ethically. Whether an immersion in digitally dominated forms of reading will change the capacity to think deeply, reflectively and in an intellectually autonomous manner when we read is also a question well worth raising.
Again, spoken language is a natural, biological form of human communication that is over 6 million years old. Reading is an invention that is only 6000 years old. There simply hasn’t been enough evolutionary time, yet, for the human physiology of reading to be perfected.
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