Susan Greenfield’s recent comments about how modern technology and social media are changing the way our brains work have caused quite a stir in the academic community: these changes, she claims, are as important to understand as climate change. One interesting way of assessing the value of her statements is to look at the nature of the “reading brain”.
To begin with, the human brain was never meant to read. Not text, not papyrus, not computer screens, not tablets. There are no genes or areas in the brain devoted uniquely to reading. Rather, our ability to read represents our brain’s protean capacity to learn something outside our repertoire by creating new circuits that connect existing circuits in a different way. Indeed, every time we learn a new skill – whether knitting or playing the cello or using Facebook – that is what we are doing.
New capacities, however, change us, as the evolutionarily new reading circuit illustrates. After we become literate, we literally “think differently” about language: images of brain activation between literate and nonliterate humans bear this out. The brain’s plasticity allows an intrinsic variety of possible circuits – there is no set genetic programme. For example, in the case of reading, this means there will be different reading brains depending on various environmental factors: the Chinese reading brain, for example, uses far more visual areas because there are more characters to learn.