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The Bellowing Ogre: Altered States of Reading

“It’s clear that participants are not simply projecting the bare meaning of the words in a sentence. They are adding to it.”

–  Livia Blackburn, “From Words to Brain.”

After several weeks of discussing the field of fantastic literary production, this week I want to shift back to thinking about reading, the primary subject of that field. We discuss reading constantly, but often in ways that gloss over its combination of complexity and variety. We (including myself in that pronoun) talk about genre and protocols and “close readings” and tastes, but we don’t get under the skin of our ideas to look at what we do when read, whether cognitively, sociolinguistically, or anthropologically. Over the next few weeks I want to discuss reading from several different analytical angles and ponder “aloud” what we do when we read generally and what we might be able to apply from these ideas to the reading of fantastic literature specifically. My overarching thesis is that there are aspects of how we read that intensify and deepen our engagement with and interpretation of fantastic literature, starting with the fact that reading is, at its core, the generation of an altered state of mind.

This mental shift is a strange and labyrinthine one, although often unthinkingly. The question of “what happens when we read” is a complex one that seems very simple, because we have habitualized the process of reading to the point where we often do it with little thought, or even unconsciously. It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that reading is both a recent human innovation and a peculiar use of our cognitive capacity, because we do it constantly and, for many people, with a sense of ease. But that ease is a cognitive act of legerdemain; that feeling of naturalness conceals the complexity of reading, and its novelty.  Scientists don’t think that reading is a capacity that we distinctly evolved; rather, it is the adaptation of a “skill [that] first arose from animals’ ability to distinguish objects, rather than from the uniquely human demands of verbal communication.” “When we read and write we are using previously evolved mechanisms and structures co-opted to new functions.” This adaptation combines with others, such as object recognition, linguistic ability, memory, and our proclivity to constantly organize and narrate the world around us. We take several different mental and perceptual abilities that we have and combine them into something that is, quite frankly, unique and marvelous.

And we do these things quickly. Measurements of reading activity in the brain are measured in milliseconds; basic word identification, for example, usually occurs at 100-200 millisecond speed. Research points to the fusiform gyrus as the location where this takes place, as  reading is, at its heart, a process of visual recognition.  “It has been suggested that the occipitotemporal/fusiform region functions as a presemantic visual word form area (VWFA) by some researchers,” although this is still being discussed.  What is more agreed upon is that there is a VWFA that both identifies words and sends them along for cognitive processing: “Within less than 250 ms of viewing a written word, the visual system extracts the information needed to identify its linguistic significance, despite wide variations in print, script, font, size and retinal position.” While some people pride themselves on being fast readers (I read, for example, 650-750 WPM depending on the style of test), we are all processing visual cues and translating them rapidly into linguistic meanings.

Once recognized, words are processed depending on the level of recognizability. The left hemispheric ventral system seems to be the one we use most often for this, the one that improves with repetition, while the dorsal system seems to be where unfamiliar words are processed, and which seems to react more slowly. A sense of difficulty in reading can come from many sources, but most commonly it comes from a lack of familiarity, and that probably results from the switch to a slightly slower computational system. As I read some of these studies I wondered if this is one possible source of the “discomfort” that some readers feel when reading not just unfamiliar words, but unfamiliar narratives. I hope to explore this is more depth next week.

From here the process becomes more speculative, but what basically happens is that a process of integration takes place where words are assigned meaning. This process is influenced by perceptual expertise as well as a reader’s linguistic competence. These are not inherent factors, but learned ones: “The progressive development of the VWFA seems closely tied to the progression of skill, rather than being merely a matter of maturation.” Reading is a skill that takes time to learn, and that we are constantly working to improve. Because of this, it is possible to create proficiencies that allow people with perceptual or processing difficulties, such as dyslexia, to learn to read. It is precisely because we are not hardwired to read that most humans can acquire the ability to do so.

This process of skill acquisition extends beyond the basic skills of word recognition and integration into other cognitive functions (imagining, writing, etc.). The ability to use our minds to read is something that we cultivate, and while the brain functions used are the same, how and why and what we read is incredibly varied. Once we recognize and integrate words, we comprehend, and all of us perform that activity provisionally and imperfectly. Studies of comprehension often look at explicit deficiencies, but complete comprehension is an elusive goal. How we comprehend is influenced by a multitude of factors, from cognitive-functional ones to affective ones to the exigencies of the moment of reading.  In fact, the idea of comprehension itself is a deeply cultural one whose meaning has varied across the history of reading. The brain is doing this hard work for a reason; because we want to understand something and engage with other minds. Reading is not just what happens in our brains; it is “an intrinsically social exchange, historically informed, culturally specific, often collectively practised.”

In the intersection of the cognitive and the cultural, the perception and the sociality, we are doing something even more remarkable than the mental processes suggest. We are identifying visual cues and turning them into knowledge, into a sense of connection with others, into dialogues within our own minds, into dislocations from the immediate world around us. We link our minds with the codified thought processes of others, search for comfort and surprises, follow linguistic pathways and find disjunctures and enigmas. This process of reading is not merely an act of communication; it is how we look into each others’ minds, share what we know and believe, and create and sever ties to each other. To read is to engage with a pattern of thought external to our minds. We do this also with speech, but in reading we turn our attention away from another human body with all of its other cues and utilize a variant form of visual identification that allows us to take in, examine, and process at a different pace. This change of pace is part of what creates that altered state in my column’s title. That state, whether measured in milliseconds or hours, is an intentional act that often feels intuitive and alluring. Next week I’ll discuss why that is.

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