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The Future of Reading

Wired editor and accomplished author Jonah Lehrer on the future of reading:

Let me explain. Stanislas Dehaene, a neuroscientist at the College de France in Paris, has helped illuminate the neural anatomy of reading. It turns out that the literate brain contains two distinct pathways for making sense of words, which are activated in different contexts. One pathway is known as the ventral route, and it’s direct and efficient, accounting for the vast majority of our reading. The process goes like this: We see a group of letters, convert those letters into a word, and then directly grasp the word’s semantic meaning. According to Dehaene, this ventral pathway is turned on by “routinized, familiar passages” of prose, and relies on a bit of cortex known as visual word form area (VWFA). When you are a reading a straightforward sentence, or a paragraph full of tropes and cliches, you’re almost certainly relying on this ventral neural highway. As a result, the act of reading seems effortless and easy. We don’t have to think about the words on the page.

But the ventral route is not the only way to read. The second reading pathway – it’s known as the dorsal stream – is turned on whenever we’re forced to pay conscious attention to a sentence, perhaps because of an obscure word, or an awkward subclause, or bad handwriting. (In his experiments, Dehaene activates this pathway in a variety of ways, such as rotating the letters or filling the prose with errant punctuation.) Although scientists had previously assumed that the dorsal route ceased to be active once we became literate, Deheane’s research demonstrates that even fluent adults are still forced to occasionally make sense of texts. We’re suddenly conscious of the words on the page; the automatic act has lost its automaticity.

This suggests that the act of reading observes a gradient of awareness. Familiar sentences printed in Helvetica and rendered on lucid e-ink screens are read quickly and effortlessly. Meanwhile, unusual sentences with complex clauses and smudged ink tend to require more conscious effort, which leads to more activation in the dorsal pathway. All the extra work – the slight cognitive frisson of having to decipher the words – wakes us up.

So here’s my wish for e-readers. I’d love them to include a feature that allows us to undo their ease, to make the act of reading just a little bit more difficult. Perhaps we need to alter the fonts, or reduce the contrast, or invert the monochrome color scheme. Our eyes will need to struggle, and we’ll certainly read slower, but that’s the point: Only then will we process the text a little less unconsciously, with less reliance on the ventral pathway. We won’t just scan the words – we will contemplate their meaning.

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Jonah Lehrer is the author of How We Decide and Proust Was a Neuroscientist.