Saturday, October 02, 2010

Why We Should (Hand)Write

I'm behind on my reading, which puts me in good company, albeit an ever-dwindling minority. It stands to reason that the explosion of e-reading is a phenomenon that we should welcome. The iPad and Kindle enable us to read more, read more efficiently, and read more conveniently.

However, there's a downside. By making the physical act of reading too easy, with every letter "precisely defined," the new e-readers don't stretch our brains.
The literate brain contains two distinct pathways for making sense of words, each activated in different contexts. One pathway, known as the ventral route, is direct and efficient: We see a group of letters, convert those letters into a word and then directly grasp the word's meaning. When you're reading a straightforward sentence in a clear format, you're almost certainly relying on this neural highway. As a result, the act of reading seems effortless. We don't have to think about the words on the page.

But the ventral route is not the only way to read. The brain's second reading pathway, the dorsal stream, is turned on when we have to pay conscious attention to a sentence. Perhaps we've encountered an obscure word or a patch of smudged ink. [snip]

Familiar sentences rendered on lucid e-ink screens are read quickly and effortlessly. Unusual sentences with complex clauses and odd punctuation tend to require more conscious effort, which leads to more activation in the dorsal pathway. All the extra cognitive work wakes us up; we read more slowly, but we notice more. [bold added] Psychologists call this the "levels-of-processing" effect, since sentences that require extra levels of analysis are more likely to get remembered.
Among my most treasured possessions are handwritten letters from loved ones, many of whom are long gone. Their words may be plain, but the letters are not a quick read. When I was young and in a hurry I was mildly irritated, but now I savor every curly-cue, smudge, and cross-out. Sometimes the words were indecipherable, and I had to figure out the meaning in context with the rest of the sentence. My dorsal stream was being freed up.

Below is a handwritten letter from one of the Cambodian schoolchildren whom my church supports. Slower to absorb, but much nicer than a text message, nicht wahr?

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