“Does the Brain Like E-Books?” sounds and reads too much like a Snarkmarket original to be ignored. I like this bit from my friend and almost-colleague (if I had locked down that UCSB job) Alan Liu:
Initially, any new information medium seems to degrade reading because it disturbs the balance between focal and peripheral attention. This was true as early as the invention of writing, which Plato complained hollowed out focal memory. Similarly, William Wordsworth’s sister complained that he wasted his mind in the newspapers of the day. It takes time and adaptation before a balance can be restored, not just in the “mentality” of the reader, as historians of the book like to say, but in the social systems that complete the reading environment.
Right now, networked digital media do a poor job of balancing focal and peripheral attention. We swing between two kinds of bad reading. We suffer tunnel vision, as when reading a single page, paragraph, or even “keyword in context” without an organized sense of the whole. Or we suffer marginal distraction, as when feeds or blogrolls in the margin (”sidebar”) of a blog let the whole blogosphere in.
And I adore this closer look at the cognitive implications of reading, as relayed by Jonah Lehrer:
I think one of the most interesting findings regarding literacy and the human cortex is the fact that there are actually two distinct pathways activated by the sight of letters. (The brain is stuffed full of redundancies.) As the lab of Stanislas Dehaene has found, when people are reading “routinized, familiar passages” a part of the brain known as the visual word form area (VWFA, or the ventral pathway) is activated. This pathway processes letters and words in parallel, allowing us to read quickly and effortlessly. It’s the pathway that literate readers almost always rely upon.
But Dehaene and colleagues have also found a second reading pathway in the brain, which is activated when we’re reading prose that is “unfamiliar”. (The scientists trigger this effect in a variety of ways, such as rotating the letters, or using a hard to read font, or filling the prose with obscure words.) As expected, when the words were more degraded or unusual, subjects took longer to comprehend them. By studying this process in an fMRI machine, Dehaene could see why: reading text that was highly degraded or presented in an unusual fashion meant that we relied on a completely different neural route, known as the dorsal reading pathway. Although scientists had previously assumed that the dorsal route ceased to be active once we learned how to read, Deheane’s research demonstrates that even literate adults still rely, in some situations, on the same patterns of brain activity as a first-grader, carefully sounding out the syllables.
That’s right — Mallarmé‘s “Un coup de dés” actually pushes through to a different part of your brain — because it taps into new graphic possibilities, as well as semantic (and syntactic) ones. And that, my friends, is poetry — i.e. “language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree.”
Or it is, so long as we keep making it new:
The larger point is that most complaints about E-Books and Kindle apps boil down to a single problem: they don’t feel as “effortless” or “automatic” as old-fashioned books. But here’s the wonderful thing about the human brain: give it a little time and practice and it can make just about anything automatic. We excel at developing new habits. Before long, digital ink will feel just as easy as actual ink.
Or today’s graphic avant-garde will feel as easy as tomorrow’s MOR pleasures.
Think about a newspaper — so much potential for marginal distraction! All those graphic collisions of text upon itself, with pictures and advertisements and such, in tiny type and held in an unusual bodily orientation. Then they added color! In the nineteenth century, the newspaper was a sensory onslaught akin to watching the commercials surrounding Saturday morning cartoons. Now, it’s straightforward, orderly — even stately.
There’s a great, probably unintentional allegory of this transformation in Citizen Kane. It plays out as the fossilization of a marriage, and the crystallization of Kane’s political intentions — moving from anarchic gadfly to demagogic gubernatorial candidate — but it’s also about the normalization (and neutralization) of newspaper reading. It goes from marginal distraction to tunnel vision, and in just six moves.