Phase Transition

A story that’s making the rounds today concerns trending changes in the way people read. Here’s the lede, from today’s Washington Post:

Claire Handscombe has a commitment problem online. Like a lot of Web surfers, she clicks on links posted on social networks, reads a few sentences, looks for exciting words, and then grows restless, scampering off to the next page she probably won’t commit to.

“I give it a few seconds — not even minutes — and then I’m moving again,” says Handscombe, a 35-year-old graduate student in creative writing at American University.

But it’s not just online anymore. She finds herself behaving the same way with a novel.

“It’s like your eyes are passing over the words but you’re not taking in what they say,” she confessed. “When I realize what’s happening, I have to go back and read again and again.”

To cognitive neuroscientists, Handscombe’s experience is the subject of great fascination and growing alarm. Humans, they warn, seem to be developing digital brains with new circuits for skimming through the torrent of information online. This alternative way of reading is competing with traditional deep reading circuitry developed over several millennia.

I don’t doubt this is true, and I think it’s fair to be alarmed. It isn’t as if the things a person ought to understand about the world have got any simpler than they were in pre-Internet days; it’s just that we are no longer given the time we need to absorb them. In terms of the ideal-gas-law metaphor I proposed in an earlier post, the container we live in has got so small that we collide with everything from everywhere; the temperature and pressure have gone up so dramatically that it’s hard for large, complex mental structures to form before they are battered apart by impinging, energetic particles.

The article in the Post seems a bit muddled, however, on exactly what’s happening to the human brain as a result. We read:

The brain was not designed for reading. There are no genes for reading like there are for language or vision.

This is an extraordinary thing to say, and it must almost certainly be false. Reading is such a powerful tool, and written language so ancient, that hundreds of generations of differential reproduction surely must have favored, by now, brains that have the knack for reading over those that don’t, at least in those populations where the written word is culturally important (and of course the written word will have become culturally important in those populations whose brains are wired more advantageously for reading.)

The muddle continues in the next sentence:

But spurred by the emergence of Egyptian hieroglyphics, the Phoenician alphabet, Chinese paper and, finally, the Gutenberg press, the brain has adapted to read.

The brain “has adapted”? What does this mean, if not that modern brains are innately different from preliterate ones? If not, then “the brain” hasn’t adapted; it’s just the same old brain in every generation, with the only difference being that some people teach their kids to use it to read. But the very idea that there is no genetic difference between brains that can and can’t read is absurd: we can’t teach dogs to read, after all, and the fact that some humans can learn to read at a very early age, while other barely achieve literacy even with intense effort, makes it obvious that there is some innate (i.e. genetic) difference between them. If the difference is innate, then it is almost certainly heritable, and if it confers even a slight edge in reproductive fitness, then over the course of hundreds of generations it would have resulted in significant adaptative change. So “there are no genes for reading” is, I think, obvious nonsense.

Having said all that, I don’t doubt that the brain can be trained to read in different ways — and I imagine that, as with other aspects of language acquisition, the way we learn in childhood has a profound effect on what we will be capable of for the rest of our lives. Failing to learn “long form” reading during this “imprinting” period, and learning instead to cultivate the shallow, transient sort of attention that one needs in a world of constant, brief distractions might very well mean that we never learn to think the long, deep thoughts that are essential to serious intellectual work; the world simply cannot be understood in 140-character crumbs.

There is more to this than mere reading, too: growing up bathed in constant, high-frequency impingement would interfere, I should think, with a child’s ever learning to control his attention at all. From the perspective of every esoteric tradition, every organized system of inner work from the Buddha’s to Gurdjieff’s, this is very worrisome indeed.

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One Comment

  1. JK says

    So much to choose from in your “protestations[?]” Malcolm I wound up selecting this one;

    The brain “has adapted”? What does this mean, if not that modern brains are innately different from preliterate ones?

    Do I hear you shout (as I do) Poppycock!

    It would seem to me that the brain has always had the feature of being an oh, shall I settle on


    Which it seems to me is why I share “what I think” your opinion of the article is.

    Posted April 8, 2014 at 11:27 am | Permalink