This Is Your Brain On Books

Over at the Frontal Cortex, Jonah Lehrer has posted his review of a new book about the effects of the brain on reading: Stanislas Dehaene’s Reading in the Brain. Lehrer says that the “moral of Dehaene’s book is that our cultural forms reflect the biological form of the brain; the details of language are largely a biological accident.” We’ve not read Dehaene’s book yet, but Lehrer’s summary seems to suggest a symbiotic relationship between the brain and the brain’s environment.

To understand the effects of reading on the brain, one must go to non-literate cultures, and study, as Marshall McLuhan researched, the changes that occur in both the brain and the culture as reading is learned. “The most obvious character of print is repetition,” McLuhan said, “just as the obvious effect of repetition is hypnosis or obsession” (p. 47). It’s impossible to be illiterate in a non-literate culture, and non-literacy has its advantages.

When we read, we are hypnotized, the eye becomes master of the sensorium, the remaining four senses impressed into eye-service. The hypnosis blinks when the eye sees an unfamiliar word, and the tongue and ear have to help out: “we’re forced to decipher the sound of the word before we can make a guess about its definition, which requires a second or two of conscious effort” (Lehrer). This means that the new reader must mouth his words as he reads (since all the words are unfamiliar to the new reader); he must hear them first. This is why, according to McLuhan, “the medieval monks’ reading carrel was indeed a singing booth” (p. 115). They had not yet learned to read silently. They had to say the word and hear it; the words entered the brain through their ears, not through their eyes. (This supports using a phonics method to teach reading.)

Lehrer says that Dehaene “also speculates that, while ‘learning to read induces massive cognitive gains,’ it also comes with a hidden mental cost: because so much of our visual cortex is now devoted to literacy, we’re less able to ‘read’ the details of natural world.” Again, this ground was covered by McLuhan in The Guttenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man.

“Literacy,” McLuhan argued, “affects the physiology as well as the psychic life” (p. 45). McLuhan said that “every technology contrived and ‘outered’ by man has the power to numb human awareness during the period of its first interiorization” (p. 187). And this is the ground that Nicholas Carr has been sifting though with regard to the effects of the internet on reading and on the brain.

It’s curious to hear Lehrer, not quite a neuroscientist (which is one reason we like him; he’s a non-specialist), say that “the brain is much more than the seat of the soul…,” curious in that he resorts to both metaphor and the metaphysical in a single phrase. “The seat of the soul”: surely that’s your brain on books.

June 6, 2010 Update: Jonah Lehrer takes some of the wind out of Nicholas Carr’s neuro-sails in a Times review of Carr’s book The Shallows and in a follow up post on his blog.