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


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