When you really think about it, the fact that you can read this sentence is nothing short of amazing.
In a fraction of a second, you are able to look at a series of complicated shapes, identify each one and connect it to several possible sounds, group those sound options together into units of words, connect each word-unit to one or more possible meanings, and then based on its relative position in a sentence, convert a series of lines and curves from simple visual stimuli into an abstract idea. And you are probably able to do this while also listening to music, eating a snack, or perhaps even both.
The written word is omnipresent in our modern lives, and these days it’s safe to say we take it mostly for granted. But, as Falk Huettig, Régine Kolinsky and Thomas Lachman note in their recent article, ‘The culturally co-opted brain: how literacy affects the human mind,’ the very concept of rendering those ideas into a series of repeatable symbols is only about 6000 years old.
To put that into perspective, the modern human evolved into being roughly 200,000 years ago. The Neanderthal is thought to have died out around 40,000 years ago. The first indisputable evidence of domesticated wolves dates from circa 12,700 BCE. Over 8,000 years after that, we first gained the ability to commit our thoughts to paper—or rather, to clay, since paper didn’t exist yet.
Every time you crack open a book, peruse a menu, or actually bother to consult the manual, you are hijacking a series of brain systems that were not originally meant for such a purpose. “Pre-existing perceptual and cognitive skills must be recruited, modified and coordinated…” writes Huettig et al. “Complex perceptual and cognitive procedures are overlearned and become automatized with extensive practice over years.”
Because of this, we can say that reading literally rewrites the brain. And that seems to have overreaching effects.
For instance, by comparing test results between pre-literate children and beginning readers of the same age, and between literate people and illiterate people, researchers were able to prove that increased mirror-image discrimination (that is, being able to distinguish identical shapes based on their orientation) is a direct effect of developing the ability to read.
The article also cites a 2018 paper by José Morais, which argues that literacy itself can potentially have tremendous effects on one’s ability to analyze and organize thoughts, think critically, and facilitate well-informed public debate. Morais also reminds us that, according to UNESCO, about 15% of people 15 or older are functionally illiterate. (And that’s not even including certain individuals on twitter who may be able to string words together but clearly could still use a boost on the analysis and critical thinking end of things.)
So the next time you glance over your iTunes terms and conditions, take a moment to appreciate your ability to resolve those strange squiggles into words and thoughts. Reading may truly be the greatest brain hack of all.