The neural anatomy of reading

Mallarme-coup-de-des

from E-Books Are Still Waiting for Their Avant-Garde by Tim Carmody

When we’re reading familiar words laid out in familiar sequences within familiar contexts, our brain just mainlines the data; we can read whole chunks at a time without consciously processing their component parts.

When we read something like James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, on the other hand — long chunks of linguistically playful, conceptually dense, sparsely punctuated text — our brain can’t handle the information the same way. It goes back to the same pathways that we used when we first learned how to read, processing a word, phoneme or even a letter at a time. Our brain snaps upright to attention; as Lehrer says, “[a]ll the extra work – the slight cognitive frisson of having to decipher the words – wakes us up.”

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Frontal_cortex_hed

from The Future of Reading by Jonah Lehrer  

It’s never been easier to buy books, read books, or read about books you might want to buy. How can that not be good?

That said, I do have a nagging problem with the merger of screens and sentences. My problem is that consumer technology moves in a single direction: It’s constantly making it easier for us to perceive the content. This is why your TV is so high-def, and your computer monitor is so bright and clear. For the most part, this technological progress is all to the good. (I still can’t believe that people watched golf before there were HD screens. Was the ball even visible? For me, the pleasure of televised golf is all about the lush clarity of grass.) Nevertheless, I worry that this same impulse – making content easier and easier to see – could actually backfire with books. We will trade away understanding for perception. The words will shimmer on the screen, but the sentences will be quickly forgotten.

Let me explain. Stanislas Dehaene, a neuroscientist at the College de France in Paris, has helped illuminate the neural anatomy of reading. It turns out that the literate brain contains two distinct pathways for making sense of words, which are activated in different contexts. One pathway is known as the ventral route, and it’s direct and efficient, accounting for the vast majority of our reading. The process goes like this: We see a group of letters, convert those letters into a word, and then directly grasp the word’s semantic meaning. According to Dehaene, this ventral pathway is turned on by “routinized, familiar passages” of prose, and relies on a bit of cortex known as visual word form area (VWFA). When you are a reading a straightforward sentence, or a paragraph full of tropes and cliches, you’re almost certainly relying on this ventral neural highway. As a result, the act of reading seems effortless and easy. We don’t have to think about the words on the page.

But the ventral route is not the only way to read. The second reading pathway – it’s known as the dorsal stream – is turned on whenever we’re forced to pay conscious attention to a sentence, perhaps because of an obscure word, or an awkward subclause, or bad handwriting.  (In his experiments, Dehaene activates this pathway in a variety of ways, such as rotating the letters or filling the prose with errant punctuation.) Although scientists had previously assumed that the dorsal route ceased to be active once we became literate, Deheane’s research demonstrates that even fluent adults are still forced to occasionally make sense of texts. We’re suddenly conscious of the words on the page; the automatic act has lost its automaticity.

This suggests that the act of reading observes a gradient of awareness. Familiar sentences printed in Helvetica and rendered on lucid e-ink screens are read quickly and effortlessly. Meanwhile, unusual sentences with complex clauses and smudged ink tend to require more conscious effort, which leads to more activation in the dorsal pathway. All the extra work – the slight cognitive frisson of having to decipher the words – wakes us up.

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