“We were not made to…” or a neurobiological contradiction

During a TV Ontario program about the brain (shown at the beginning of January 2014), a neurobiologist said something like “We were not made to sit in a quiet room and read; after all, we hunted for more than half a million years and our brains and bodies are made to do that”. Aside from the fact that the claim “Human beings were not made to do something” smacks of shallow thinking whoever professes that thought, his statement is blatantly contradicted by neurological research into reading. The brain allows for reading ability by moving functions to other parts of the brain, according to the research done by Dr. Stanislas Dehaene (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MSy685vNqYk). Hence, the contradiction: we were not made to do it, but we do it anyway. This contradiction engenders at least two cultural consequences.

            On the one hand, the statement “We were not made to read” is repeated and supported variously in different sources and for various purposes (see, for ex.,  Adrian Van Der Weel, Changing our textual minds. Towards a digital order of knowledge. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2011, p. 189: “reading is a far from natural brain activity…if it wasn’t for the fact our education system remains firmly based on books and literacy, the digital medium would probably be a great deal less textual in nature.”). Reading  (specifically deep reading) is not “natural”, and therefore has to be convincingly taught, practiced, artificially supported and promoted. It means that this activity appears external (outside of the thinking and living body: echoes of Plato). Reading relies wholly on the ability to accept, decode, understand, keep intact the linguistic form and meaning produced by others. No other activity related to language comes even close to this astonishingly complex feat. However, in the age of multimedia and multimodal communication, as language is devalued, so is reading. And thus the statement “We were not made to read” keeps gaining currency. It is therefore logical that if humans want to keep this skill alive, it has to be peddled differently and time and effort have to be devoted to making time for the effort of reading.

            On the other hand, one can easily envisage a society where reading does not happen at all (Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 comes to mind readily, although it laments its absence and gives an example of how things written could survive in a non-reading world). “We were not made to read” becomes then “We do not read”. The cerebral area now devoted to the function of reading would be taken over by other functions. It is not clear, however, how would the more than four thousand years of written verbal historical documentation of all types be “translated” into other than visual linguistic medium. If looking back to the past and thinking about it makes human life so much richer, then the past has to be kept alive somehow. The transhumanist proposal of nanochips or other bio-electro-chemical modules which contain information may be just what would fill this need. The nitty-gritty of the manner in which this would be accomplished, however, remains unarticulated.


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