Thursday, June 10, 2010

Proust and the squid

In a post from about a year ago, Jerry Coyne provided a useful set of links to the main pro and con arguments in the science-religion-compatibility argument of recent times. No doubt more arguments have been put forward since then, but I suspect all the philosophical issues have already been thoroughly covered. So I'll read through these arguments and add my own amateur piece to them in due course.

Last night I was watching Doctor Who [which I rarely do] and it featured a dyslexic lad who the Doctor encouraged with a reference to dyslexic geniuses such as Einstein and Da Vinci. 'Ahh', thinks I, 'the show's writers have been reading Proust and the Squid.'

Proust and the Squid, written by Maryanne Wolf, a professor of child development at Tufts University, and director of the Center for Reading and Language Research, is my own most recent venture into book-learnin. I have to admit that, having read it, I feel I should read it again, it's so rich in knowledge and speculation about the process of reading, and the future challenges to reading in our electronic, visual, sound-bitey age. It touches, and often more than touches, on such matters as the origin of writing, the different types of writing systems, the history of the teaching of writing, the way reading and writing affects the brain, and how problems in learning how to read and write [what is dyslexia exactly?] have taught us so much about how the brain functions and adapts.

Reading is a relatively new invention, but very important for the development of civilization and modern humanity, because the human brain was considerably altered by it - not in a basic anatomical way, but certainly in terms of information processing and organisation, and this in turn has affected our social development quite substantially. Just think, we divide history from prehistory on the basis of this single transformative invention. Reading combines vision and spoken language in revolutionary ways, and it has involved the adaptation of much older and slowly evolved circuitry for the acquisition of new tasks. Wolf refers to the 'open architecture' of the brain, a computing term, and the brain's plasticity and versatility is such that a Chinese child will learn to read her native language using quite different neural connections and pathways than those of an Australian child learning to read English.

Wolf chose this title because, first, the squid was a creature used in the fifties to study brain processes and brain repair. The squid's long central axon made it an ideal subject for these early studies, and now the 'reading brain' is offering a similarly ideal subject for more advanced work in cognitive neuroscience. The reference to Proust is one more obviously apposite to someone like me, as, in his book On Reading, he describes that inner sanctuary of the mind as it communes with a writer and follows and further elaborates upon a narrative; a precious place, a storehouse of unique memories, emotions, revelations. Wolf is especially alive to this ineffable impact of reading upon the psyche. She describes Machiavelli, who 'would sometimes prepare to read by dressing up in the period of the writer he was reading and then setting a table for the two of them'. Okay, I'm a bit sceptical of the story, but it evokes a period when reading, far from a universally acquired skill, was something precious, almost sanctified. Nowadays, it is virtually regarded as a sin not to be able to read; hence the stigma associated with dyslexia.

So what happens when we read? How are we enabled to do so? There's no easy answer. For a start, as mentioned, reading is a different process in different cultures with different writing systems. Our modern alphabet has twenty-six letters, compared with 900 or so cuneiform characters [used in the Akkadian and Sumerian writing systems], and thousands of hieroglyphs [the Egyptian writing system]. This suggests an increase in efficiency, and many scholars have argued that the development of an alphabetic writing system [probably by the Greeks in around the eighth century BCE] not only made writing easier to learn, but much more flexible and able to express novel and complex ideas. Yet brain scans have shown that people can master more complex syllabary writing systems, such as Chinese, which has thousands of characters, quite proficiently, and though these things are difficult to measure, there's no obvious reason to suppose that the Chinese are any less novel and complex thinkers than users of the 26-letter alphabet.

I could write much more about this book - in fact every page raises a multitude of questions and sets the mind off on a wondering journey. I'll definitely read it again, and I'll examine and reflect on more material from it from time to time. An endless sort of book.

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