Interviews, Essays, Etc.

You Are What You Read
February 1, 2011

I am an apologist for the reading brain. I study the life of words within the convoluted recesses of that ever-evolving organ: the layers of meaning, form, and nuance that words contain; the particular ways that the vicissitudes of life can impede words’ ease of access in the old and the young; and the profound manner in which written words help us go beyond the “text” into realms of thoughts never before experienced. This is my life's work, and it begins with an unusual, simple concept: we were never born to read.

Unlike language and vision, reading—or written language—has no genetic blueprint that makes it unfold according to a long-established plan. Rather, reading is an invention, and a relatively new one. Our ability to learn anything new is based on several “design principles” that showcase the uniqueness of our species’ brain. The first principle involves plasticity—the ability to form whole new “circuits” out of novel rearrangements of our brain’s older structures. The second principle involves specialization and automaticity—the ability to create representations of information (like a letter, symbol, or image) and access them almost instantaneously the next time we encounter them. In the very young, the freshly formed reading circuit represents a newly fashioned set of pathways connecting representations from our basic structures like vision (the letter) and hearing (the sounds of the letter) with the beginnings of symbolic thought. The expert reading circuit takes years of formation and becomes something entirely new and varied. It represents an extraordinary network of connections that brings together streamlined pathways among basic structures with some of our most sophisticated cognitive processes—e.g., inferential thinking, analogical reasoning, critical analysis—and all of our associations and background knowledge about the words and the concepts we are reading. Between the child’s first reading circuit and the expert one, there is a great deal of variation possible. That variation is both the cerebral rub and the miracle of the plasticity of the reading brain.

For, with no “ideal template,” the reading brain is shaped and formed by multiple variables—the type of writing system (e.g., Chinese and English require very different areas of the brain, as well as some similar ones); the instructional emphases in the reader's education; the medium of print (e.g., digital or traditional print) the range of purposes in the reader's repertoire (e.g., informational, pleasure, learning, critical analysis, etc.); and the unique history of what was read before. At a macro-level this last factor means that we bring to the reading circuit all that we have read before in the form of background knowledge. At a micro-level it means that we activate the entire network of associations we have learned about a particular word every time we read that word. For example, the amount of knowledge we possess about the Bible will dictate the layers of meaning we bring to our reading of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden or Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. We can read them without this prior knowledge and experience the narrative at one level, but our ability to enjoy the fullest strata of meanings will depend on what background we bring to the text. The cerebral “rub” is that many will never experience those layers of meaning because they have brought little to bear upon their reading. The miracle is that we can always bring more to each new reading of the text.

The same is true for the smallest unit of analysis, the word. How we understand a single word can make the difference between a complete or a superficial understanding of a word, a sentence, or even an entire text. This is because whenever we read a single word, the entirety of our semantic, grammatical, and even auditory representations about that word are instantaneously activated. This automaticity is one of the most important design principles of the human brain, and lies at the heart of why we are able to bring so much to everything we read—from word to text.

Whether we are fully conscious of all that is activated when we read is, of course, another question. In a recent essay in the New York Times Book Review section, “The Plot Escapes Me,” novelist James Collins asked me why many of us fail to remember the characters, the details, even the plot of an engrossing book after we have read it. I replied there as here. Even though we may have no conscious awareness of our memory of plot or word, it is there, invisibly influencing us. For example, when we read the humble word “bug,” most of us never realize that one of our associations is a “device for spying”; yet this meaning is activated along with every other more common meaning. So also is it with what we learn from books. We may not remember specific details of a book, but the very fabric of our brain’s networks have been contributed to by these words, these concepts, and the thoughts that arose from them at the time.

Some time ago, before we had an image of the reading brain, Joseph Epstein wrote that if one examines the “reading biography” of any educated person, we will know who that person is, because “we are what we read.” In similar fashion, our continuously increasing knowledge in the cognitive neurosciences teaches us that we are the sum of what and how and why we read. We are, each of us, master potters of our own uniquely formed reading brain.

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