23 April 2013

You need something to hold in your hands: the brain's connections to writing and reading

This post is technically a write up of one of my entries in my Morning Pages diary. Don't know what 'Morning Pages' are, reader? For shame! You need to look it up in the seminal The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron (of which I've only read two chapters but yeah, that's my problem, not yours).

The need to post up what I ended up writing (splurge of the 'waking' brain) was propelled by a brilliant online article about the brain and the written word, vis a vis reading on paper/page as opposed to reading on screen. The subject began churning in my mind after watching a video that displayed how a school in the US still put high priority on the children learning cursive writing and not just using tablets. The video also showed a professor of linguistics arguing that nostalgia alone is not a good enough reason for children being made to write with pen and paper.

Image provided by http://www.aotearoaeditorial.com
I've always had the notion that there is something integral about the act of writing out by hand with a pen on paper. When I really want to arrange my thoughts and get serious about forming a structure, I revert (sorry, wrong choice of word), I gravitate to paper and pen. And I know it has little to do with the notion that it is some sort of fanciful, wholesome craft, it's something natural, obvious and the brain likes it (backed up by the article I reference below - 80% of students of University of Mexico 'preferred to read text on paper as opposed to on a screen in order to "understand it with clarity".') 

Anyhow, here's what I penned in said diary on the issue (somewhat fragmented and not quite polished, which I think better illustrates how ideas and language 'flow' - a word my English teacher forbade us from ever using - from one to other, an effortless continuity) :

Do not forget the importance of brain, hand, pen and paper, a seamless line of action, one that is a low energy act with a high satisfaction rate; little or next to no resources are needed - no draining of electricity, no charging, no Wi-Fi, no pulling at any source of physical energy. All that is needed is the simplest of tools in hand. Scientists should recognise the importance of acts and crafts, so many activities, that work or require a tool in the hand - sculpting, cutting, sewing, cooking, surgery, drawing, engineering, gardening, carpentry, fishing, archery - anything that requires an implement to create and form something, fundamental to our brain waves, to the unfolding of a creative vision. How many times do we find it so hard to get something down on the screen? No one computer tool does it all perfectly. You have to chop and change. But the tool in hand, the paper, the tangible material, eliminates that initial halt/barrier, it begs that the activity happen right away; the unfashioned parts of wood that need assembling, the allure of the blank page, the sketchbook that is clean and ready for your drawn expressions, experiments, developments.  
I enjoy going to graduate shows and picking up the sketchbooks to see how they develop; the penmanship itself is like the map lines of the artist's mind and expression. None of that can come across quite so vividly and immediately on the digital screen. Sure, there are many amazing digital creations, digital paintings etc, but they don't give you a glimpse into the 'workings out'. For my own coherency, I have all my notes that I've written on pages in the digital space. Anyone, in theory, could view them. But there would be no fun that way because they are alone arranged for me. You would switch off from this somewhat blah display of digital notemaking, revisions etc. However, if I were to put on an exhibition, where my sketchbooks, illustrations and notebooks were on display, my 'workings out', it would be a story in itself, it would have meaning. It would give you a sense into the process, into the madness of the craft. Like with maths, you may get the end answer but everyone knows the accomplishment comes from the 'working out of it all', the language of the brains' processes and comprehensions, making those connections between this and that, elements strung together so that you align x with y. (I definitely feel dumber since leaving uni and I definitely don't connect up knowledge quite like I used to because there's little sense of an actual 'space' in which this happens).  
So please give students this indelible craft, this necessary act that gets the brain warmed up. Don't deny them the joy of how their brain truly works, how they truly tick. That way they'll have material, a retrospective that allows them to realise their own improvements, their evolution. You simply cannot track that through digital means. You cannot lay it all out and really see
After writing all of this, I was struck by the idea that reading is an actual physical activity, it's not just creating images in our minds, it goes beyond. And lo, I found this article from Scientific American, via one of my fave blogs, Forever Young Adult.
'...evidence from laboratory experiments, polls and consumer reports indicates that modern screens and e-readers fail to adequately recreate certain tactile experiences of reading on paper that many people miss and, more importantly, prevent people from navigating long texts in an intuitive and satisfying way. In turn, such navigational difficulties may subtly inhibit reading comprehension. Compared with paper, screens may also drain more of our mental resources while we are reading and make it a little harder to remember what we read when we are done. A parallel line of research focuses on people's attitudes toward different kinds of media. Whether they realize it or not, many people approach computers and tablets with a state of mind less conducive to learning than the one they bring to paper. 
"There is physicality in reading," says developmental psychologist and cognitive scientist Maryanne Wolf of Tufts University, "maybe even more than we want to think about as we lurch into digital reading...

Understanding how reading on paper is different from reading on screens requires some explanation of how the brain interprets written language. We often think of reading as a cerebral activity concerned with the abstract—with thoughts and ideas, tone and themes, metaphors and motifs. As far as our brains are concerned, however, text is a tangible part of the physical world we inhabit. In fact, the brain essentially regards letters as physical objects because it does not really have another way of understanding them.

Just as we learn that certain features—roundness, a twiggy stem, smooth skin—characterize an apple, we learn to recognize each letter by its particular arrangement of lines, curves and hollow spaces. Some of the earliest forms of writing, such as Sumerian cuneiform, began as characters shaped like the objects they represented...Some researchers see traces of these origins in modern alphabets: C as crescent moon, S as snake...The brain literally goes through the motions of writing when reading, even if the hands are empty.  (This explains why I often only think in words - when my dad asked what I 'see' in my mind when I think of word, he expected images, symbols etc and I told him I often just see the word itself - I can feel emotions attached to the word, e.g. I see the word 'burden' and it invokes a heavy sensation). 
 ...The human brain may also perceive a text in its entirety as a kind of physical landscape... The exact nature of such representations remains unclear, but they are likely similar to the mental maps we create of terrain—such as mountains and trails—and of man-made physical spaces, such as apartments and offices. Both anecdotally and in published studies, people report that when trying to locate a particular piece of written information they often remember where in the text it appeared...we remember that we read about Mr. Darcy rebuffing Elizabeth Bennett on the bottom of the left-hand page in one of the earlier chapters. (Has to be one of the top 3 satisfying experiences of reading)
In most cases, paper books have more obvious topography than onscreen text...A reader can focus on a single page of a paper book without losing sight of the whole text: one can see where the book begins and ends...One can even feel the thickness of the pages read in one hand and pages to be read in the other. Turning the pages of a paper book is like leaving one footprint after another on the trail—there's a rhythm to it and a visible record of how far one has traveled.  
In contrast, most screens, e-readers, smartphones and tablets interfere with intuitive navigation of a text and inhibit people from mapping the journey in their minds. A reader of digital text might scroll through a seamless stream of words...but it is difficult to see any one passage in the context of the entire text. As an analogy, imagine if Google Maps allowed people to navigate street by individual street, as well as to teleport to any specific address, but prevented them from zooming out to see a neighborhood, state or country...the screen only displays a single virtual page: it is there and then it is gone.   "The implicit feel of where you are in a physical book turns out to be more important than we realized," says Abigail Sellen of Microsoft Research Cambridge in England and co-author of The Myth of the Paperless Office. "...I don't think e-book manufacturers have thought enough about how you might visualize where you are in a book."  Supporting this research, surveys indicate that screens and e-readers interfere with two other important aspects of navigating texts: serendipity and a sense of control. People report that they enjoy flipping to a previous section of a paper book when a sentence surfaces a memory of something they read earlier, for example, or quickly scanning ahead on a whim. People also like to have as much control over a text as possible—to highlight with chemical ink, easily write notes to themselves in the margins as well as deform the paper however they choose.'
I can't recount all the good points made in the article, so here is the full one. Thanks to the writer, Ferris Jbar for giving it to us.

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