Monday, September 13, 2010

The Way We Should Read

His dorsal stream can only tolerate very low doses of activation.

Jonah Lehrer wrote about his wishes for the future of reading on last week. He introduced Stanislas Dehaene's work on the neural anatomy of reading (well, it's a first for me, anyway!) and its possible applications on e-reading, and I think it's pretty neat.

It turns out that the brain contains two pathways for making sense of words; the ventral route and the dorsal stream. The ventral route is activated by "routinized, familiar passages" of words, and it relies on the visual word form area (VWFA). The brain goes the ventral route the majority of the time (ha), but certain contexts activate the dorsal stream; for example, sentences with complex clauses, poor punctuation, and even those written illegibly. Basically, any sentences that require more conscious effort to perceive lead to an activation of the dorsal pathway, and supposedly, more comprehension and appreciation for meaning.

Lehrer is worried that the ease that better tech brings to reading e-books (through brighter screens) will have a negative effect on our reading comprehension, and even our willingness to read harder texts. This is true for me. I know I've responded to people with "too long/did not read"(TL/DNR) on many forums. I find a perverse joy in doing so, especially with inane posts (I suspect most of my readers have gotten to that point with this one!), but I recognize that I do it with quality posts at times as well.

I know many friends who do the same, and that's sort of sad. Lehrer's fear, that "before long, we’ll become so used to the mindless clarity of e-ink – to these screens that keep on getting better – that the technology will feedback onto the content, making us less willing to endure harder texts", is already a reality for many.

Anyway, I admit I wasn't familiar with the neural anatomy presented in his article, but it makes sense. My two cents: I would imagine that this dorsal activation also occurs when one reads text in a foreign language. I notice that I HAVE to pay more attention to the sentences I'm reading and the words I'm sounding out when they are new to me. I do feel my brain working when I translate a passage from Italian to English. The process is not automatic, not at all, and I find I appreciate the meaning of words much more when they're new.

Lehrer's solution is to have e-book readers offer a function to make reading a little more difficult, supposedly to activate the dorsal stream. I don't see that happening, but for all of us who care about keeping our brains engaged, dim those computers and bring out those old poetry anthologies once in a while (shudder). Couldn't hurt, right?

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