Never Look A Good Book In The Gift Horse… What? (6 mins)

Our ability to read may have evolved from our ancestor’s earliest hunting skills. Recognising and interpreting different animal tracks would have had huge advantages in the wild. Knowing which way a predator went, for instance, was probably very useful for avoiding attacks. Following the tracks of our next meal would also have helped us stay alive. So, do we need to be taught to read or do we just pick it up like we do with our first language?

One Mark Matters More Than A Thousand Words

young-man-reading-964491_894279473Reading is our ability to identify and understand marks. Simple as that. Marks were once the footprints left by animals. Seeing them is an innate ability. It doesn’t need to be learned at its most primeval level. Babies and young children can focus on and interpret signals and ‘marks’ as well as – and, occasionally a lot better than! – adults, who are swayed and influenced by so many different factors and persuasions….

For a baby, one such collection of ‘marks’ might be the shape of its mother’s eyes or the curve at the end of the milk bottle.

Think: Curve shape = food. Eye shape = protection. Claw shape = danger. You get the idea. Taking it to the next level, the marks collect together over time into hieroglyphs and, as civilisation progresses, alphabets; languages; treaties; books.

Everyone has heard of the ancient tradition of cave painting. Early man put his hand print onto a stone wall and said, “What do you think of that, then?” Someone else wandered along and read it. Evolution was their only teacher.

The Neurological Perspective

Background knowledge affects text comprehensionReading isn’t just about the eyes. Our sensory understanding of what we see is affected (boosted in most cases) by our sense of smell, ability to hear our surroundings and our knowledge based on experience – one might say, intuition. Imagine being in a field with a stealthy tiger – a tiger you can’t see. A bird calls out. Its call sounds like danger. What do you do and why are you doing it?

Admittedly, reading a book in bed doesn’t require as many senses as we used to employ when we were hunter gatherers avoiding death every day but, the basic theory still applies. Eyesight isn’t all we need to comprehend what’s happening in the story. We use our understanding of the real world, our vibrant imaginations, our emotional responses and our past experiences to interpret the characters, imagine the places and even, to guess the outcome. Why else would we be able to predict how fiction ends before we finish it?


think stencil art & graffiti cat

Evolution: Writing On Walls

This is a particularly interesting area of neurology and it connects directly to our ability to read. Let’s go back to the hunter gatherer. I imagine you’re already guessing what he looks like: lots of unkempt hair; loin cloth made of animal hide; handmade belt full of small tools; alert expression. He’s ready to attack and carve up his next meal, perhaps, or to run from that stealthy stray tiger. Imagine he enters a cave and spots another man’s hand print on the wall. What do you think he thought? What do you think he did? Did he assume a disembodied hand had floated in through the cave entrance and pressed itself against the stones? Or de he visualise another human being, similar to himself, leaving a purposeful message on the wall?

The point is, our visualisation technique hasn’t changed neurologically for many thousands of years – it’s just grown more sophisticated and its use has naturally adapted to reflect the changes to our lives and our world.

Comprehension, on the other hand, requires motivation.

What Does This Mean?

Well, there’s a difference between reading a string of words by accident and deliberately reading a string of words with the express intention of comprehending them. The motivation to understand a pattern of text – or a mark on the surface of the earth – comes not only from our ability to see it but also from our knowledge and experience of how we benefit from doing so (both as individuals but also as a species, in evolutionary terms). As John T. Guthrie and Allan Wigfield said back in their excellent scientific study of the motivation of reading in 1999, “a person is unlikely to comprehend a text by accident. If the person is not aware of the text, not attending to it, not choosing to make meaning from it, or not giving cognitive effort to knowledge construction, little comprehension occurs.” (1.)

How Did We Do It?

In Reading in the Brain: The Science and Evolution of a Human Invention, leading neuroscientist and cognitive expert, Stanislas Dehaene, asks why humans developed the incredible ability to read and apes, who have the same genome, did not (2). The fight or flight reason discussed earlier is not explanation enough: apes had to run away from dangers, just like humans. Thankfully for us mere mortals, he also answers the question. And, to cut a brilliant story short, it’s all down to what we now call ‘neural networks’.

Neural networking is a hidden electro-biological gem. Understanding these networks sheds light on the differences between oral communication/ language and reading/writing. To quote Dr. Alexander’s paraphrase – and, to answer the question I posed earlier, “The neural networks for oral language in man are innate; the networks for reading and writing are not innate and must be acquired.”

Genetically, apes had the basic building blocks of the neurology required to read but, humans developed it as a direct response to the demands of their changing environment. Reading marks, cave paintings and the earliest symbols became useful for survival. Later, as cultural pressures intensified, language developed even further. Put simply, humans developed the need for speaking, writing and complex reading tasks; apes didn’t. But, apes do recognise and comprehend basic shapes and visual stimuli – and they do it in the same part of the brain (the occipito-temporal region) and with the same ancient mechanism as we do. As the author of the book explains, humans just “recycled” what we inherited from our ape ancestors via slow, trial and error evolutionary steps.

One conclusion is evident: our brains are not fixed in their potential for improvement. Even now, when we think of ourselves as advanced beings, the capabilities of our neural networks are constantly being tested; altered and retested. Reading may look like something that has only happened since the advent of books but, in reality, it has been quietly evolving with us all that time.

Citations: 1. Journal Article “How Motivation Fits Into a Science of Reading” by John T. Guthrie and Allan Wigfield. Scientific Studies of Reading; Volume 3; Issue 3; 1999 (A fee is required to access the full journal article). 2. Book Review of “Reading in the Brain: The Science and Evolution of a Human Invention” by author Stanislas Dehaene. Review in Neurology Today; 7th October 2010; Volume 10(19); P27; Article written by Ann W. Alexander MD.

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