Monday, August 25, 2008

Reading the brain (Books - Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf)

I've finally completed Maryanne Wolf's Proust and the Squid, a book about the evolution of written language from oral, how the brain accommodated that change, what may happen in the brain when things work well, as well as what may happen when they don't. Here's my other post on the first few chapters of the book.

Initially I was rather frustrated with Wolf's straining for a flashier story than she has, but her enthusiasm for reading and her ideas about how it works are infectious. Her writing is very well organized, sometimes painstakingly so. She is of the school that tells us what she is going to do, does it, and then tells us that she's done it while attempting to draw some conclusions from the exercise. This may be the preferred form for scientific articles and is a good format for the lecture hall, but I found it a self-conscious structure that inhibited the free flow of Wolf's otherwise fluid prose. It also ended up making the book two chapters too long. The opening chapter explains what we will read in each chapter, and the concluding chapter rehashes everything we have already read. I wish the editor had advised Wolf against this strategy, or had helped her hide the seams better.

Wolf's central premise is that written language changed the brain, particularly alphabetic language. This is divided into three arguments:

In the context of cognitive history, three claims about supposedly unique contributions of the alphabet now lend themselves to our analysis:

1) the alphabet's increased efficiency over other systems;

2) the alphabet's facilitation of novel thoughts, never before articulated; and

3) the novice reader's ease in acquiring an alphabetic system through their increased awareness of the sounds of speech. (This ability enables children to hear and analyze phonemes; thus it facilitates learning to read and helps spread literacy.)

Two parallel stories are then told, the acquisition of written language by our species in general and the acquisition of written language by an individual member of that species over the course of their childhood and how the brain accommodates these processes given that reading and writing are not what the brain was "made for." I found this conceit overworked in Proust and the Squid and best worded in the later rather than the earlier sections of the book:

...there are neither genes nor biological structures specific only to reading. Instead, in order to read, each brain must learn to make new circuits by connecting older regions originally designed and genetically programmed for other things, such as recognizing objects and retrieving their names.

The first point is well taken, that no part of the human brain, or indeed any aspect of the human anatomy is dedicated solely to reading cannot be argued, however to conflate that notion with the idea of "design" seems to me a misunderstanding of the half of evolution that always gets short shrift - genetic drift. If we have a brain that allows us to perceive forms in the environment, that comprehends and produces language generatively, if we have evolved to create symbols to facilitate commerce and the archiving of our presence (or perhaps also our essence), and if the plasticity of our brain allows us to use its circuits to retrieve the meanings of the markings that represent that language, it seems to me that although the brain is not dedicated to the function of reading it is as made for reading as it is made for recognizing the house where we live, or the face of our teacher. Granted our legs were 'made for walking, ' but does that mean they were not made for kicking? I won't belabor the point further.

The strength of the book was the way in which Wolf connected the value of great books, the importance of reading those books to our experience as humans, and what might occur in the brain to make this happen. Chapter 6 - The Unending Story of Reading's Development - does this effectively and passionately and is by far the stand-out chapter of the book.

By identifying with characters, young readers expand the boundaries of their lives. They learn something new and lasting form each deeply felt encounter. Who among us, if faced with the prospect of being marooned, wouldn't think what Robinson Crusoe might have done? Who among us who has read Jane Austen doesn't think about Darcy when encountering an arrogant man - and hope to discover his hidden goodness? Elizabeth Bennet, Captain Ahad, Atticus Finch, Mona in the Promised Land, Celie and Nettie, Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom and Jayber Crow: our ability to identify with these characters contributes to who we are.

Throwing ourselves into this dance with text has the potential to change us at every stage of our reading lives. But it is especially formative during this period of growing autonomy and fluent comprehension. The young person's task in this extended fourth phase of reading development is to learn to use reading for life - both inside the classroom, with its growing number of content areas, and outside school, where the reading life becomes a safe environment for exploring the wildly changing thoughts and feelings of youth.


As David Rose, a prominent translator of theoretical neuroscience into applied educational technology puts it, the three major jobs of the reading brain are recognizing patterns, planning strategy, and feeling. Any image of the fluent, comprehending reader shows this clearly through the growing activation of the limbic system - the seat of our emotional life - and its connections to cognition. This system, located immediately below the topmost cortical layer of the brain, underlies our ability to feel pleasure, disgust, horror, and elation in response to what we read, and to understand what Frodo, Huck, and Anna Karenina experience. As David Rose reminds us, the limbic region also helps us to prioritize and give value to whatever we read. On the basis of this affective contribution, our attention and comprehension processes become either stirred or inert.

Wolf goes as far as to provide in-depth analyses of passages from Middlemarch and The Brothers Karamzov, to consider how language functions as a complex whole, and how the mature reading brain might apprehend such structures. Two subsequent chapters deal with what happens when the brain is not able to learn reading with the same ease as most typical children. The chapters are less a memoir of what it is like to have dyslexia than the other book I read on that subject this summer, Reading David. Although Wolf does delve some into the reading experience of one of her sons, she integrates that with a discussion of the current neuroscientific theories of the problem. The section offering comparative anatomy and time courses of processing on the millisecond level between typical and dyslexic brains is particularly well laid out. If a lay-readers should choose to delve this deep, the language is clear and not too technical. This book's spoon-fed structure does allow one the advantage of skipping over a section and reorienting yourself fairly quickly. Once in any section, the writing is fluent, driven by a passion for reading, and the scientific ideas are very well explained. Anyone interested in the intersection of the brain and books (as I certainly am) or just the intersection of the arts and the sciences in a more general way, should find plenty in this book to sustain their interest, the story of the evolution of written language itself and the linking of a great reading experience to brain function are particularly strong.

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