This is Your Brain on Books
WVU Chat: RJ Hembree, 12/7/2014
“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes,
but in having new eyes.”
In school we’re rushed, with little time for deep reflection. We live from lecture to lecture, essay to essay, exam to exam, working in overtaxed, short-term memory space at the expense of retention in long-term memory. We may get a diploma proclaiming our education, but not necessarily the practical knowledge we’d hoped for. Students come to value knowledge in terms quantity over quality, which, if you think about it, is oxymoronic in terms of education. It’s Rain Man on exam day, but long after students forget what they’ve learned, Rain Man still remembers.
Looking back, I see other shortcomings of university life in general and creative writing programs in particular. Writers’ Village University will celebrate its 20ths anniversary in Jan., 2015, and those 20 years have reshaped my understanding of writing, and they’ve exposed the tunnel-vision of conventional wisdom, in the narrative arts, and in art itself. Socially, the trend is changing, but in two opposing directions. A tug of war.
On one side we see a rise in interdisciplinary studies, new collaborations between diverse fields. Science is extending its hand, not just to other sciences, but to the arts. The hand of art, though leery of the gesture, is beginning to reach out too. But then we have the other direction of social change, the one that has lost its faith in both science and art, the one that has given itself to an ideology of fear, resentment and discontent. On this side art is frivolous and intellectualism, science, academics in general are adversaries. We have two major fronts, and science and art, confronted by a mutual enemy, now find themselves on the same side.
Some cling to the idea that science and art are incompatible; I say it’s time to tear down this imaginary wall. Everything is connected. Scientist could use a good dose of the arts, and they certainly could use our help in communication skills. Likewise, we can use their help to better understand our art on a deeper, realistic level and stop attributing inspiration to mystical whims. In the last couple of decades, they’ve made contributions we shouldn’t ignore, and people are taking notice.
I think we can all agree good writers are well-read, well-rounded and have well-fed imaginations. Writing is deep observation and thought, focused day-dreaming so-to-speak, and if this isn’t happening, it’s a staring contest with a cold, blank page. The snake-oil advice is to sit down and write, write anything, just write. Force it, it will come. If you’re lucky, you might draw a couple aces and write a few rambling pages. At some point we stop believing in luck and the power of nothingness to inspire us. It’s better to feed the synaptic Muse first, get the neurons sparking. Read something interesting but challenging, something outside the comfort zone. Read deeply and critically with an eye for connections. Inspire the Muse with new information and contemplation. Then, when there’s something to write, write.
In 2008 WVU embraced the out-stretched hand of cognitive linguistics and accepted its gift of conceptual metaphor. Dozens of WVU members have studied it and discovered its place in the narrative arts. I always look forward to facilitating or teaching the Metaphor classes. Sparks ignite, spread wings and soar the skies.
This is only the beginning of what I hope is a long, productive friendship with the sciences. Neuroscience is still in its infancy, but it is already redefining our understanding of literature and its impact on our lives. WVU needs to continue working with science. I want to see our members on the cutting edge, not buried in the shavings. There’s much more to explore.
I’ve reviewed and continue to review WVU courses. Many of the courses are over 10 or 15 years old, and reading them made me realize how much things have changed, including my own thoughts. I found many instances where I disagreed with my own beliefs, the 1990s and early 2000s me, the fresh out of college me. Not everything I learned was true when held to the light.
So the next step was to address weaknesses and close gaps. Some courses were updated, some were retired to the archives, the digital rest home for old courses. We live in times where things grow obsolete in a flash, not only technology and pop singers, but writing and thinking. And yet, some things haven’t changed: the foundations we build on. Alfred North Whitehead famously said western philosophy is a "series of footnotes to Plato." This echoes Samuel Johnson’s lesser known words, “…literature is a series of footnotes to Homer.”
You’ll notice a new series of literature, style and nonfiction courses on the WVU calendar, and many more in 2015. This is a gap being filled, a foundation tended to, a need met for fiction, poetry and nonfiction writers. It’s all connected— literature and style for foundation and thought; nonfiction for blogging and self-promotion.
The majority of WVU members are fiction writers, so naturally these classes are more popular, as seen in the short story workshops and recent in-depth courses like Michael Heibert’s and the LaPlante course sponsored by the Sweethearts of the Rodeo Group. More fiction courses are coming too, thanks to Donna Sundblad’s (Birdie) help.
This morning Donna sent chapter summaries of Lisa Cron’s book, Wired for Story. From this, a new series of 2-week MFA courses will begin in January. This is another step toward the future of writing because Cron’s research challenges conventional teachings with empirical evidence.
In 2008 WVU offered a One-Year Short Story MFA and over 100 members enrolled in the beta program. WVU will offer MFA Programs again in 2015. The programs are designed for flexibility, and may be customized to individual needs.
Typically, a full-time student completes traditional MFA studies in two to three years and writes a thesis, either a novel, nonfiction book, or collection of shorter works (poetry, short stories or essays). Courses include their specializations, along with literature, theory and elective courses. There is also an extensive reading list covering everything from ancient to current works. WVU will offer two levels of nonaccredited MFA Programs in each specialization. One is equivalent to traditional accredited programs (2-6 years), and one is a shorter, and less comprehensive (1-3 years). The actual time to complete the program depends on the available time and aggressiveness of the student. I’ll post announcements when the program becomes available. There’s still much to work out, so all I can add is that WVU’s programs will be modeled on traditional programs with improvements, including cross-discipline options. For example, those wishing to write historical novels may include independent historical studies in their programs. Those wishing to specialize in science writing might include climate or biology studies.
Reading Nurtures Nature
WVU Chat: RJ Hembree, 12/7/2014
Quick learning isn’t deep learning. UCLA’s Dr. Robert Bjork coined the term “desirable difficulties” to describe the most effective way of retaining and understanding information.
“That confronting certain difficulties can enhance learning serves to emphasize some unique characteristics of how humans learn and remember, or fail to learn and remember. We do not store information, for example, by making any kind of literal copy of that information. Rather, we encode and store new information by relating it to what we already know—that is, by mapping it on to, and linking it up with, information that already exists in our memories. New information is stored in terms of its meaning, as defined by its associations to other information in our memories; storing information, rather than using up memory capacity, creates opportunities for additional storage. … Desirable difficulties are desirable because responding to the challenges they create requires encoding and/or retrieval activities that support learning.”
In “Outsourcing the Mind,” psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer says, “The Internet is essentially a huge storage room of information, and we are in the process of outsourcing information storage and retrieval from mind to computer, just as many of us have already outsourced the ability of doing mental arithmetic to the pocket calculator. We may lose some skills in this process, such as the ability to concentrate over an extended period of time and storing large amounts of information in long-term memory…” Gigerenzer softens our glum fate with the assurance that “the Internet is also teaching us new skills for accessing information.”
Before 399 B.C., Socrates had similar fears about writing, “For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise.”
When Guttenberg invented the printing press, 16th-century scientist Conrad Gessner was outraged by the “confusing and harmful abundance of books.” In the 18th century Malesherbes thought it socially isolated readers. In 19th century, the Sanitarian medical journal argued that schools "exhaust the children's brains and nervous systems with complex and multiple studies, and ruin their bodies by protracted imprisonment." Of course doctors had long considered excessive study the leading cause of madness.
How did we ever survive?
Perhaps as our ill-fated race evolves from a reading brain to digital brain, we’ll need a new breed of well-read, well-rounded, imaginative writers to simplify complex thoughts for those of us with Twitter attention spans and limited critical thinking skills.
David M. Levy, computer scientist and professor at University of Washington, says attention is a “highly limited resource,” and the “abundance of information, good though it is in many ways, is also a tax on our attention.”
Ziming Liu (San Jose State University) says, “With an increasing amount of time spent reading electronic documents, a screen-based reading behavior is emerging. The screen-based reading behavior is characterized by more time spent on browsing and scanning, keyword spotting, one-time reading, nonlinear reading, and reading more selectively, while less time is spent on in-depth reading, and concentrated reading. Decreasing sustained attention is also noted. Annotating and highlighting while reading is a common activity in the printed environment. However, this “traditional” pattern has not yet migrated to the digital environment when people read electronic documents.”
“We were never born to read. Human beings invented reading only a few thousand years ago. And with this invention, we rearranged the very organization of our brain, which in turn expanded the ways we were able to think, which altered the intellectual evolution of our species. Reading is one of the single most remarkable inventions in history; the ability to record history is one of its consequences. Our ancestors' invention could come about only because of the human brain's extraordinary ability to make new connections among its existing structures, a process made possible by the brain's ability to be shaped by experience. This plasticity at the heart of the brain's design forms the basis for much of who we are, and who we might become.”
Maryanne Wolf, Director of the Center for Reading and Language Research, and Professor in the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development at Tufts University. Author of Proust and the Squid.
Maryanne Wolf says our transition from print to digital formats will have a negative consequences for “deep reading,” a term she expands to mean “sophisticated comprehension processes.” “Reading is a bridge to thought,” she says. “And it’s that process that I think is the real endangered aspect of reading. In the young, what happens to the formation of the complete reading circuitry? Will it be short-circuited and have less time to develop the deep-reading processes? And in already developed readers like you and me, will those processes atrophy?”
So what’s a digital brain to do?
Our brains have plasticity, the ability to adapt and grow. And we don’t need to upgrade it with latest Intel processor to improve the way it works. It’s more like building muscles, curiosity muscles, the more we use them, the more they grow.
“For a long time, it was believed that as we aged, the connections in the brain became fixed. Research has shown that in fact the brain never stops changing through learning. Plasticity IS the capacity of the brain to change with learning. Changes associated with learning occur mostly at the level of the connections between neurons. New connections can form and the internal structure of the existing synapses can change.”
Dr. Pascale Michelon, “Plasticity, learning and memory”
Different areas of our brains grow depending on our skills and level of expertise.
Taxi drivers have a larger hippocampus than bus drivers because this region of the brain uses complex spatial information to navigate. Taxi drivers navigate more territory, bus drivers follow limited routes. Plasticity is seen in bilinguals. Learning a second language changes the brain; the left inferior parietal cortex is larger than those who know only one language. Gray matter volume is greater in musician’s brains than nonmusicians, and more in professional musicians than in amateur musicians. It’s been a few months since I’ve practiced, and I can feel my gray matter shrinking just at the thought of it.
Researcher Alexandre Castro-Caldas discovered that processing between the hemispheres of the brain was different between those who could read and those who could not. A key part of the corpus callosum was thicker in literates, and "the occipital lobe processed information more slowly in individuals who learned to read as adults compared to those who learned at the usual age." Psychologists Ostrosky-Solis, Garcia and Perez tested literates and illiterates with a battery of cognitive tests while measuring their brain waves and concluded that "the acquisition of reading and writing skills has changed the brain organization of cognitive activity in general is not only in language but also in visual perception, logical reasoning, remembering strategies, and formal operational thinking." (Source: Kevin Kelly, edge.org)
Professor Philip Davis says, “Serious literature acts like a rocket-booster to the brain. The research shows the power of literature to shift mental pathways, to create new thoughts, shapes and connections in the young and the staid alike. This is the argument for serious language in serious literature for serious human situations, instead of self-help books or the easy reads that merely reinforce predictable opinions and conventional self-images.”
Literature is now used for chronic pain therapy and to reduce the speed of dementia, and with positive results. Investment in cognitive reserves pays off. A life of reading slows old age dementia by a third. For those who read little, dementia sets in 48 percent faster.
Of letters and words, Phil Davis says, “These shapes in front of our eyes have an effect on the shapes behind our eyes.” Reading challenging works expand our capacity to think deeply. For example, as we begin to read Proust or Shakespeare, the use of language immediately cues our brain to work on a higher level, with more concentration and attention to subtle details. It’s the same when we read a sentence that strikes us as profound, or one that uses words in an unusual way. It could be Shakespeare using “madded” or “godded” to mean made mad or deified, or Tom Robbins saying “The sky was the color of Edgar Allen Poe's pajamas.” Our brains activate in different areas. When we consistently read and reflect on works of depth, the architecture of our brains physically change, and our comprehension and capacity to think deeply improves.
What if we have no desire to read challenging works?
This brings us to Curiosity. There are two flavors: Diversive and Epistemic. We have curiosity muscles, and the more we use them the stronger they get. The question is: which is getting the most exercise?
“Curiosity is the most superficial of all the affections; it changes its object perpetually, it has an appetite which is very sharp, but very easily satisfied: and it has always an appearance of giddiness, restlessness and anxiety.” Edmund Burke
“I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.” Albert Einstein
In A Treatise of Human Nature, David Hume distinguishes between two types of curiosity, one good, another bad, both pleasurable:
“The interest, which we have in any game, engages our attention, without which we can have no enjoyment, either in that or in any other action. Our attention being once engaged, the difficulty, variety, and sudden reverses of fortune, still farther interest us; and it is from that concern our satisfaction arises. Human life is so tiresome a scene, and men generally are of such indolent dispositions, that whatever amuses them, though by a passion mixt with pain, does in the main give them a sensible pleasure. And this pleasure is here increased by the nature of the objects, which being sensible, and of a narrow compass, are entered into with facility, and are agreeable to the imagination.
The same theory that accounts for the love of truth in mathematics and algebra may be extended to morals, politics, natural philosophy, and other studies, where we consider not the other abstract relations of ideas, but their real connections and existence. But beside the love of knowledge, which displays itself in the sciences, there is a certain curiosity implanted in human nature, which is a passion derived from a quite different principle. Some people have an insatiable desire of knowing the actions and circumstances of their neighbors, though their interest be no way concerned in them, and they must entirely depend on others for their information; in which case there is no room for study or application.”
Diversive curiosity is unfocused and usually unproductive. Examples are gossiping, channel surfing, thumbing through a magazine, or cruising the Internet. In other words, it’s curiosity without objectives. The mind tends to skip around looking for something new and interesting. This means information is never digested; it never moves from short-term to long-term memory for future use. If we do this consistently, our brain adapts and it becomes a habit.
Epistemic Curiosity is focused and productive. Examples are using the Internet for research, reading deeply to gain knowledge, or pursuing a hobby. This can also include skipping around the Internet, but with specific goals in mind, such as finding ideas for a writing project, or locating the perfect gift for someone. As soon as we stray from our original objective, we regress to Diversive Curiosity. Epistemic Curiosity involves deep thought and making connections. When we find meaningful connections, the information is moved to long-term memory for future use. The information can stay there for a year or longer, depending on how often we apply it or make new connections with it. For example, learning a trade or skill is continuously reinforced if it’s your occupation.
Anyone who has learned a second language will notice a change in thinking. Each language builds its own architecture in the brain. The beauty is the gained structure isn’t restricted to language. Other areas take advantage of the enhancement. English, because of its complexity, builds a larger, more complex network than most languages. The brain works harder too. English is a hybrid language, derived from many, and uses an alphabet of sounds; it’s phonetic. When we read, the letters are brought through the occipital lobe as images, then move to the auditory cortex to process as sounds, then to the cerebral cortex to assemble as meaningful words, then finally to the pre-frontal cortex as thought. Pictorial languages, such as Chinese or hieroglyphics, don’t require sound when reading, so information goes directly to the pre-frontal cortex, bypassing the auditory cortex.
Literature builds its own architecture in our brains, so you really are what you read. I encourage everyone to break out of your comfort zones and read the classics, or modern authors like David Foster Wallace, Thomas Pynchon, Umberto Eco, or Salman Rushdie. Read deeply and build your curiosity muscles. To help you get started, register for L200 Proust & Flaubert - Short Works.
Sources are available on request. They are extensive, so please be specific in the area you’re interested in. You can reach me by private message at WVU (username: rjhembree).
Copyright RJ Hembree and Writers’ Village University, 2014. All rights reserved.