Reading in the Brain by Dehaene. Still waiting for the digital codex.

Reading in the BrainEarly into Reading in the Brain I knew I had found a very good book, packed with research and informed insight. As I began to read it, however, I noticed something odd. I was struggling with the Kindle edition I had purchased. I found myself wanting to physically grapple with the device more than the buttons would allow. The book contains diagrams that are useful to consult when reading the text but I could not easily cross-reference them. The book is lengthy and I found it difficult to track progress without the thickness of a print book. I had already enjoyed a few novels on my Kindle without this problem. This material was more challenging. I have read many similar scientific books before but always in print. For analytical reading the absence of tangible pages felt like a phantom pain. What was happening? Dahane’s book was compelling enough, and the digital challenge troublesome enough, to merit a second purchase of the more expensive print edition. The completed reading answered my question.

The reading paradox

Dahaene begins with the reading paradox. Our brains evolved over millions of years without writing. How is it that we can read? The hardware of our brains has not evolved in the mere 5000 year history of writing. New studies repeatedly show that the brain is more plastic that we thought but no so plastic as to invent new structures for reading. Dahaene explains that reading became possible for humans because we had the good fortune to inherit cortical areas that could link visual elements to speech sounds and meanings. Our limited plasticity allowed us to recycle existing brain circuitry.

Learning to read still takes years of training. It starts with visual recognition of shapes, e.g., “T” and “L”. The brain learns to detect subtle differences in words, e.g., “eight” vs “sight” while ignoring big ones, e.g., “eight” vs “EIGHT”. We do not scan words letter by letter from left to right like a computer program, but instead encode units of meaning for easy look-up, e.g, the morpheme “button” in “un-button-ing”.  The brain uses two pathways in parallel, sound and meaning, to reconstruct the pronunciation of the word. With sufficient training and practice reading seems virtually effortless.

We are not born to read. The only evolution that occurred was cultural — we optimized reading over the centuries to suit the brain. One more thing is needed. Why are cultural phenomena like reading so uniquely developed in humans? Dahaene attributes it the evolution of our prefrontal cortex. “My proposal is that this evolution results in a large-scale ‘neuronal workspace’ whose main function is to assemble, confront, recombine, and synthesize knowledge.” The workspace allowed us to exploit the cognitive niche made possible by neuronal recycling.

My brain needs re-training for reflective reading of e-books

I was struck by the tight coupling of brain structures with their physical counterparts in the world. Learning to read, the brain becomes encoded with the specific shapes and sounds of words. The aim of reading is still to reconstruct the original physical speech utterances. The skills required for processing text should be mostly transferable from print to digital books. After all, the text is still there. Indeed I find the reading of light or familiar material to be nearly equivalent on an e-reader.

When words are less familiar some slowness is to be expected. As Dehaene explains, we perform extra processing to decipher letters for rare or novel words before attempting to access their meaning. When words, sentences and paragraphs combine to express complex ideas much more processing is required. Reduced reading speed can be expected for reading abstract and challenging material regardless of the medium. To be sure, I wrestle with print books, snapping pages when I am unconvinced, wearing the binding from too much turning, attacking the text with a pen. I experienced this with the print edition of Reading in the Brain. I experienced a greater challenge when using the e-reader. How come?

I speculate a connection between reading technology and access to the neuronal workspace. Dahaene argues that literacy changed to suit the structures of the brain. The print book, the codex, is two thousand years old, a design that surpassed the scroll. It is an evolution of technology, finely tuned to our neurons to optimize reading. I can compel its knowledge. We assume the e-reader represents an advance on print because it embodies digital technology. Integrated with the web, it is easier to discover, purchase, search and link to other material. The text is readily ported to an e-reader and I can adjust its font-size for readability or play it aloud for listening. Still, the pages are continuous like the older scroll format. More important, I think, the global analysis functions are inferior to that of a print book: the single stream of focus, parallel access to pages, easy turning and cross-referencing across any two points. These are reflective reading functions that are used to “assemble, confront, recombine, and synthesize knowledge,” the functions served by the neuronal workspace. If you think I am cutting too fine a point, recall the tight coupling between brain structures and the world.

I am certain that my brain is already being reprogrammed to work more efficiently with e-books. It is happening to all readers. This phase of re-training  explains some of the fourty year delay in the popular adoption of e-books. If my speculation is correct, e-reader design must evolve again if it is to finally compete equally with the print book. We have only seen the invention of a digital scroll but have yet to witness a truly digital codex. What would a digital codex look like? I offer a suggestion. The print codex introduced facing pages, a dual pane interface that has been mimicked by some e-reader designers. This effect could be amplified using multiple tabs like modern browsers, but within the e-reader. Better yet, I would like to be able to create any number of independent digital pages (or portions thereof) on a single digital desktop, all available at once in full-size for parallel processing. This is not the same as a browser with web content. It matters that the content is still unified within a dedicated reading device.

Reading is always at risk

E-books only make us stupid because we argue about them. While print is still the superior technology for reflective reading, if a truly digital codex was invented I would be the first in line to get one. Dehaene’s book focuses my attention on two more serious concerns. First, we are not born to read. The alphabet and literacy are cultural inventions finely tuned to our brains. Every generation must go through the hard work of learning to read. The internet does not offer a shortcut to knowledge. Second, the invention of reading re-purposed existing neural circuitry. Dahane suggests the mental “letterbox” we use for recognizing letters may have once been used for identifying animal tracks, a skill we have lost. Cortical reorganization is a competition, a zero sum game. As we re-train our brains for digital technology what skills will be lost? The capacity for long-form reflective reading, perhaps. Reading is always at risk.

6 Replies to “Reading in the Brain by Dehaene. Still waiting for the digital codex.”

  1. I generally hit my RSS feed first thing in the morning, cherry picking things that interest me/are easy to process and skipping others. This morning I clicked the link to this post, skimmed the first couple of paragraphs,skipped over to Amazon and bought Reading in the Brain (which was on my “to read” list anyway, skipped back and read your post more carefully, and started thinking about how to reply.

    I may have to wait until I actually get into the book.

    It’s interesting that I may actually read the entire thing, since I have it as an ebook…I have a bad habit of buying non-fiction and letting it sit on the shelf. I will get back to you on that.

    Thanks for intriguing me, yet again.

  2. Thanks so much for putting into words so much of what I’ve been thinking about the e-reader experience – the resemblance to a scroll for example, and you’ve confirmed my suspicions that claiming e-books, or indeed anything digital (with the exception perhaps of photographs) to be more sustainable and of lower environmental cost, is disingenuous.

    I find e-books only really work for me for narrative fiction, where in fact being bound to the linear format is sometimes an aid to applying myself to it. Checking back for references to names, characters, places etc is easier also than with a print book. Another thing, and this might sound a bit crude, but I really can’t bring myself to spend much on e-books, I feel if I pay full price for a book I want something more concrete for my money. So by and large, I mostly get out-of-copyright classics, either free from Gutenberg or very cheap from the Kindle store. It strikes me that with their tendency to linear narratives, omniscient narrators, and relatively simple shape generally, these lend themselves well to the medium, whereas the more fragmented, intricately pieced structures of some more modern/post-modern novels require more flicking back and forth and actual, physical manipulation of the text. Maybe. Poetry and most non-fiction (classic biography would be OK, I guess, but I don’t read so much of that) are deeply unsatisfactory, your phantom pain comparison is spot-on.

    Interesting that Barbara says she is more likely to read an e-book and shelve and ignore the print one, I find the opposite; stuff on the Kindle is very much more out-of-sight-out-of-mind, as all the complete works of such worthies as Henry James, Tolstoy, etc stacked up way down the order on mine will attest. But I suppose I often just got them on a whim because they were there and free or very cheap. I think I have some idea that I may be snowed in or trapped somewhere with nothing else to read and then I’ll be glad of them.

    Bear in mind too, that for most of us at least in the relatively affluent bits of the western world, we are handling physical books long before we learn to read. This disposes us to be best equipped to process this way of having things presented to us; I appreciate what you say about our brains adapting, but they never do so quite as flexibly again as they do in early childhood. But could we imagine learning to read from some form of e-reader primer or picture book? The commands necessary to manipulate and access the information on it seem to require skills which presuppose a level of attained literacy already, and being past the developmental stage of needing to get your fingers right onto and into things to understand them.

    Perhaps when the digital codex has evolved all things will be possible. The device you envision is appealing, but already it’s hard to imagine such a thing which still retains the slender compactness which is one of the e-readers attraction. Whatever, I too look forward to it, even the thought of coloured e-ink is quite exciting. I think our present e-readers will look very primitive quite soon.

    1. You said, “It strikes me that with their tendency to linear narratives, omniscient narrators, and relatively simple shape generally, these lend themselves well to the medium, whereas the more fragmented, intricately pieced structures of some more modern/post-modern novels require more flicking back and forth and actual, physical manipulation of the text.”

      Thanks for this brilliant observation, Lucy. I had not thought of it, but I am certain that is true (of many public domain books too). I will consider this in my e-book/print choices.

  3. Sorry, last paragraph, should read ‘one of the e-reader’s attractions’. I should really proof-read my comments before I post them.

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