A brain warped by reading

Stanislas Dehaene’s Reading in the Brain: The New Science of How We Read is an excellent book because it shows how we reuse preexistent cognitive architecture to extend our capacities through cultural creativity. There is, for example, a part of the brain that is localized toward recognizing the shapes of letters to allow immediate “sight reading” of words (higher mathematics is a similar cognitive extension repurposing).

But nothing is without cost. In Reading in the Brain the author recounts evidence that adaptation to reading may have resulted in a diminishment of human ability to localize and situate ourselves on a landscape with few features (and obviously no road signs!). As we live in a world of clerks and not trackers, this is a reasonable trade-off for most. As someone who reads quite a bit, and has read quite a bit since I could read, I’m sure some of my mental peculiarities are the consequence of the warping effect of constantly reading text.

Aside from reading, over the last 15 years, I have written quite a bit. Last I checked >5 million words. That comes to ~10,000 pages. My writing style has evolved and changed. Just as with reading, I’ve reshaped my brain in various ways. Ways I have not reflected on. And perhaps will never be aware of.

The ancients understood the impact of literacy intuitively. The first great transition likely occurred with the utilization of text to record stories and ideas and freeze in place discourses that were previously free-flowing in the ancient agora (as opposed to the accounting function of Linear B and much of Bronze Age writing).

The rise of text also heralded the long and slow decline of the art of memory. The text itself changed qualitatively and quantitatively. Clay tablets and papyrus gave way to parchment, and parchment gave way to paper. The physical form of text also evolved, from scrolls to a codex. The Bible of Christians was famously one of the first major works distributed primarily as a codex. A book as we understand it (though the separate “books” of the Christian Bible hint at its past as a collection of scrolls). Each of these transitions reduced the price and increased the convenience and accessibility of text, but the printing press transformed the game fundamentally. Due to the crash of the cost of books the art of memory what persisted down into the Renaissance finally expired with early modernity.

These reflections are due to the fact that I have now been heavily involved in two major podcasts for some time. One on science and another on broader topics relevant to South Asians. Additionally, I have participated in a few YouTube live streams as well. The first thing to note is that the density of information per unit of time is lower in podcasts than writing. Part of this may just be that I read fast, and I listen with lower than typical comprehension, but part of it is also certainly objective data density because others admit the same. To “fix” this issue most people simply speed up the podcast, to 1.25 or 1.5 times the regular speed.

But there is a second issue: the very form of writing is structured in a way that is different from the necessarily more extemporaneous form of podcasting. Obviously the latter is on a spectrum. Patrick Wyman’s Tides of History podcasts feel like dramatic readings of essays. In contrast, Joe Rogan’s two to three-hour ramble-fests are winding, digressive, and chaotic. I find Rogan quite entertaining, but I suspect the “learning” portion could be condensed into 15 to 20 minutes out of the 2-3 hours.

When it comes to the science podcasts that I run with Spencer Wells I think they are often dense and tight because the topicality is one where both of us are on solid ground, and science itself is a contingent and structured set of ideas and concepts. In contrast, a podcast where several people try to tackle the definition of Hindu nationalism is naturally going to sprawl in unexpected and sometimes muddled directions.

If podcasting is the new blogging, we are in new territory here. Or are we? Perhaps the more extemporaneous and unstructured manner of dialogue that you see in this medium is a throwback to the ancient agora, and the oral cultures which were dominant even among elites more than 2,000 years ago.

4 thoughts on “A brain warped by reading

  1. Podcast’s don’t really seem that different a format than radio. And indeed, the top rated podcasts are usually dominated by NPR shows (or shows like Serial, that are made by NPR folks). And several of the ones that aren’t NPR are done by AM radio guys (Dan Carlin, etc).

    And speaking personally, anyways, my consumption of the two is pretty similar. I used to listen to the radio when driving or jogging or doing dishes, now I do the same with podcasts.

    There’s less in the way of a barrier to entry, and no time constraints, but the actual content seems pretty close to what’s been coming over the AM band for as long as I can remember.

  2. “The first great transition likely occurred with the utilization of text to record stories and ideas and freeze in place discourses that were previously free-flowing in the ancient agora”

    This almost certainly happened with the Bible, but even within Jewish tradition as we have it now, setting down of the “oral law” in written form (by codifying the Mishnah and later the Talmud) was seen as a highly regrettable act that was only undertaken due to extreme persecution.

    The “orality” of the “oral text” was seen as an essential component of the tradition due to its flexibility and the chain of authority it represented, both of which would be lost once the text had a written form. Oral transmission required robust teacher-student relationships and implied a kind of vetting of the next generation of scholars by the previous generation, both of which were not required when learning was entirely written.

    The discussion even continues today, and there is a prominent rabbi who in the late-20th c. argued that the upheavals of the mid-20th c. drove Judaism even deeper into a text-based culture, by the collapse of what few regional-mimetic practices still exist.

  3. I don’t think podcasts are a throwback to the agora… like simplicio said, it’s just a more convenient form of radio. The broadcasts are unidirectional without any audience participation or live feedback. Perhaps Twitter is a better analogy (god help us!).

    Thank you for the podcasts — they are both great. I’ve been enjoying Brown Pundits though I’m not south Asian.

  4. The way I get information i by reading. I find podcasts extremely off-putting. They transmit information much too slowly for my taste, and they don’t allow random access. I guess Socrates would be dismayed with me.

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