The Effects of Literacy

Writing is sometimes called visible language. This usefully distinguishes it from spoken language. Since visible language and spoken language are fundamentally different, it is possible to assert that the end of literacy does not mean the end of language.

While spoken languages are ubiquitous and diverse, only a relatively few of the nearly 7,000 languages developed a written equivalent. Literacy is rare. As a result it is interesting and revealing to explore languages and societies as they transition from an oral culture to a literate culture.

The study of orality and literacy involves the scholarship of such influential thinkers as Eric Havelock, Walter Ong, Jack Goody, and David Olsen. While there are contentious debates about the impact of literacy on primarily oral cultures, all these scholars chart changes in society and in ideas that parallel the adoption of visible language. Ong suggests that literacy was the necessary precondition for science, democracy and individualism. Others, while taking a more nuanced approach, agree on many of the profound changes brought about by literacy.

More recent scholarship has moved from the anthropological analysis of literacy to the neurological perspective. The rise of technologies such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) have allowed us to peer into the brain by watching activities in different areas as they are activated or remain dormant. These are still relatively crude tools but they have allowed us to explore new frontiers in neurology including how we process visible language and what happens when we read.

While there are numerous researchers engaged in this work and we are still at the very early stages of understanding the nature of the brain and its functions, Maryanne Wolf’s Proust and the Squid: the Story and Science of the Reading Brain (2007) is an excellent overview of how literacy has changed our brains and how it operates as it reads.

Because of the work of Wolf and others, we know that literacy has rewired our brains. Literacy is not simply a tool we use, something we pick up and then put down. It’s not like a really good hammer. It’s more like a drug. The acts of reading and writing create and reinforce certain neural connections. Our plastic brain is shaped by this. It optimizes itself to respond to the needs of literacy. We change ourselves to be literate and to remain literate.

Our brain doesn’t know we read and write. It has adapted to this stimulus in order to make sense of things. We have “literate brains” only because we have constructed them. We think the way we do only because we have trained ourselves that way.

As Terrence Deacon notes in The Symbolic Species: The Co-Evolution of Language and the Brain (1997), the brain did not evolve thereby enabling language, but somewhat counter-intuitively, language evolved to fit the structure and function of the brain. Or in other terms, the tool or the capacity shaped itself to the limitations or advantages of the brain.

Research into the growing brain reveals that as babies we shed many of the neural connections we are born with; they are pared down and optimized. We actually lose neural density and connections as a result. The difference between learning a new language as a youth as opposed to learning a language as an adult is a good illustration of the impact of this. However we shouldn’t think of this shedding process as a loss of skill or ability but rather as a means to focus, concentrate, and refine. This pruning of our neural components allows us to sharpen specific functions and enhance connections that are more beneficial in our particular circumstance.

However, if we shape the structure and functioning of the brain through literacy, what other “shapes” are possible? If we were to concentrate on other stimulus or inputs, we know that the brain would respond differently. Studies of television viewing confirm this and exposure to new media of other types appears to have a similar impact. If we focused on other “literacies” to build certain connections and prune others, the brain would adapt and structure itself accordingly.

As a result, when we talk about post-literacy as a capacity or a tool we are also talking about creating or evolving the post-literate brain.

A Comment from Caitlin Marshall:
How Literacy Affected Our Sense of Self


10 Responses to “The Effects of Literacy”

  1. John Miedema October 29, 2012 at 8:53 pm #

    “As a result, when we talk about post-literacy as a capacity or a tool we are also talking about creating or evolving the post-literate brain.”

    This is a good argument. I am certain that my brain has been reprogrammed from a print-dominant brain to print-digital hybrid brain. My patterns in filtering, organizing and reading information have challenged significantly in style and power in the past ten years. Overall, I think it makes me smarter.

    Of course, your notion of post-literacy is not limited to digital tech. Still, the transformation in brain processing associated with the web is evidence in favour of your argument.

  2. Pam November 6, 2012 at 9:18 pm #

    Like you, John, I also feel smarter as a result of developing a print-digital hybrid brain. Where I used to lament my increasing inability to zone in and pay attention to something for long periods of time, or finish whole documents for the sake of it, I find myself embracing my information seeking habits that favour finding more relevant information in a more efficient manner. I wonder – as our brains evolve into “post-literate brains”, how will our attitudes evolve? Will our brains lose certain abilities as we gain others? What if this is bad and we only realize it when it’s too late? (I fear I’m venturing into a dystopic vision here … help!)

  3. maryakem November 10, 2012 at 2:08 am #

    Ah here is the diversity in the ‘us’ around reading life. And some great comments too.

  4. Aimee May 7, 2013 at 2:07 am #

    While the scholarship surrounding notions of literacy effects as universal and autonomous, such as Ong and Goody, is widespread and supported, the New Literacy Studies have emphasized the context of literacy. Such an emphasis on cultural context seems to be lacking in this section and seems to think that the neurological effects of literacy will be homogenous and universal in nature; literacy shaping everyone’s brains into one model. Brian Street has argued against this “autonomous” model of literacy claiming “literacy varies from one context to another and from one culture to another and so, therefore, do the affects of the different literacy in different conditions […] literacy is a social practice, not simply a technical and neutral skill; that is always embedded in socially constructed epistemological principles”(Street 2013 1-2). I believe this view should be taken into account when viewing the effects of literacy on the brain. In fact, Wolf’s book, Proust and the Squid, touches on this subject in when she notes that a man who could speak and read both Chinese and English could only speak and read Chinese after suffering a stroke. The article comments that the brain has been shaped differently from different writing systems, “current brain imaging shows us how the brain can be differentially organized for different writing systems”(Wolf 2007 61). In this way we can see the evolutionary affects of language and literacy are varied between cultures and their corresponding writing systems. So if literacy can shape different areas of the brain according to cultural differences amongst writing systems then I believe culture can deeply influence the effects literacy has on not only our brains but also our relationships.


    Street, Brian. “Autonomous and Ideological Models of Literacy: approaches from New Literacy Studies.” Date accessed May 1st, 2013

    Wolf, Maryanne. “The Birth of an Alphabet and Socrates’ Protests” from Proust and the Squid. New York: HarperCollins, 2007.

    • Michael Ridley May 13, 2013 at 10:05 am #

      Thanks for this. I agree. This chapter (and the surrounding discussion so far) hasn’t adequately dealt with the cultural context of literacy. Your comments help address this. There is some research on the different impacts of different writing systems; this seems like a very interesting line of investigation. I hesitate to say this would enable us to identify “best practices” regarding writing systems (and impact on literacy) but I suppose I just did. Hadn’t seen the Street reference; thanks.

  5. Peter May 7, 2013 at 1:09 pm #

    One take away lesson from my Rhetoric of Literacy class is the idea that literacy is always taught with good intentions, but literacy as a tool can be used to manipulate, oppress, and hurt others. This happens at all levels of society and from all time periods in history. Specific examples that we have read about in this class include: slavery, adolescent girls that write notes, and newly literate Ugandan women.
    The words oppress and hurt, obviously don’t apply to all of the aforementioned cases, but in terms of slavery, they still ring true. Slaves were purposefully kept illiterate so that they could not gain their freedom by writing passes. Cornelius writes in her article about slave literacy that, “While scholars of literacy recognize literacy’s usefulness as a medium of social control and industrial training, the majority still agree that the basic result of literacy has been and is one of liberation.” Because people at that time associated literacy with liberation, it was kept from slaves. In this manner literacy was used as a weapon to oppress. Those slaves that did learn how to read and write often gained freedom by forging passes, thus further cementing the relationship between literacy and liberation.
    On a less intense level, even schoolgirls use literacy to pass notes and exclude others in what Finders likes to call “the literate underlife.” These notes are used to bring girls together and strengthen friendships, but they are also used to gossip. Even the annual yearbook event, which revolves around literacy and the literate underlife, can be exclusive: “Although the yearbook was viewed as a symbol of solidarity for all students only a particular population of students was made to feel as if they belonged to this club other students remained outsiders” (34).
    It is intriguing, to say the least, that humans can move on from becoming literate and use their new set of tools to manipulate others. Marc Fiedrich explains this phenomenon in his article about a Ugandan women who recently took a REFLECT class, “It is rare to hear of empowered women who use their newly gained personal freedoms to act selfishly, immorally or even just indifferently […] And yet, while literacy’s potential to harness modernity has rightly been challenged, the notion that participation is empowering remains a much-coveted truism” (220). Fiedrich was surprised that the woman was acting in a way that was selfish, contrary to popular belief that as soon as one becomes literate, they are now empowered and wise beings.
    Most of us, excluding slave owners, have the preconception that literacy is good and to teach it is an inherently good thing. But literacy is often abused and can be used to manipulate and oppress others. Literacy, like many tools, can be used as a weapon in the hands of its owner.

  6. LeNora September 3, 2013 at 8:24 am #

    Regarding visual language and “The Effects of Literacy”, are there any similarities between a blind person and a person that has no or very limited visual imparities?


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