Remaking Our Brains

BLOG #15, SERIES 6
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
REMAKING OUR BRAINS
April 15, 2015

This was the weekend of our annual Conifer Kiwanis Reading Celebration for the third-graders who attend six mountain elementary schools here in the Colorado Rockies. Also for a large consortium of homeschoolers.

Before we honored the kids for their reading improvement, I gathered close to 90 third-graders on the floor around me, and urged them to make reading central to their lives. Since I poured thirty years of observation and research into my 1992 book, TV on Trial, and one of my main doctoral concentrations had to do with the relationship between reading and writing, and since those areas have remained central to me during my entire academic teaching career, I felt this occasion offered me a golden opportunity to plant seeds in these young minds.

I pointed out to them that there are two ways they can feed their brains: Reading and Electronic Imagery. Reading has been with us clear back to ancient times, but most significantly since the advent of printing, some six centuries ago. Electronic imagery is much more recent: around the turn of the twentieth century with the advent of moving pictures.

Today, electronic imagery has become so ubiquitous it increasingly has pushed reading onto the ropes, with some even questioning whether it can survive at all.

So, I pointed out to the third-graders that there are two significant differences between reading and electronic media: Reading is a creative process; electronic imagery tends to be creative only for those who create it. Reading is connotative. In other words, every time a person opens a book and begins reading, something exciting happens: that person’s brain shifts into its creative gear as the reader cranks out non-stop inner imagery that has the potential to actually change the brain into a powerhouse.

I introduced two contrasting word processes: “denotative” and “connotative.” Denotative has to do with the dictionary definition of a word. Let’s take, for instance, the word “father”; the dictionary definition is “a man who has begotten a child.” That’s all there is to it.

But the connotative process is so explosive it borders on the mind-numbing, for it has the potential, over time, to remake the brain. I pointed out that as you read the word “father,” if you have a loving father you adore, the mental image you create will tend to mirror that; but what if you have an abusive father? That would contribute to a much darker mental image. And no two readers ever create exactly the same mental imagery from the same words! For each individual is one-of-a-kind. That is why cloning would be such a terrible thing. As a person reads, word after word after word triggers the creation of mental imagery in the reader’s brain. So much so that just one book has the potential to create seismic differences in the reader’s outlook on life. But that’s not all, by any means. Each author writes in a different way from other authors; this is why Google enables teachers to catch plagiarists so easily, and why it borders on the impossible that an anonymous writer can long remain anonymous. The reader reads works by Alcott, Tolkien, Blume, Milne, Seuss, Hemingway, Tolstoy, Twain, or Martin Luther King, Jr.—; those stylistic differences are stored in inner templates, each of which may be drawn from when the reader begins to write herself/himself.

Depending upon whether the reader reads from a wide variety of books, stories, essays, etc. written by authors worth reading as opposed to stalling out on mental pablum; the former is likely to develop into a powerhouse and the latter into straitjacketed narrowism.

* * *

But what if individuals read no books and little of anything else, and instead feed the mind with electronic imagery (the norm for untold millions today), what happens to their minds? When one is watching television, cinema, video, or other electronic genres, whether one person is watching a given source or a billion people are watching it, every last one is internalizing the same picture! Reason being that the receiver’s brain has had nothing to do with the image’s creation—someone else did that. In fact, the receiver’s brain is completely bypassed: BAM! The image is blasted into the receiver’s brain. But it is not internalized for it is a foreign object. It is a self-standing entity that just sits there. Over time, as these foreign objects take up more and more space in the receiver’s brain, that person all but loses the creative potential that individual was born with.

In the collegiate freshman composition classes I’ve taught over the years, I’ve seen replayed the two species again, again, and again. When I tell a class, “Take out a blank piece of paper. We are going to write. . . . Now write!” It matters little whether I give them a subject to write about or let them choose, the results are the same each time: the reader, having all the internalized imagery of many authors’ books and stories synthesized into the memory banks, stylistic templates too, can hardly wait to start writing—and then the pen races across the page. The non-reader, almost invariably, just sits there glassy-eyed, like Bambi on ice. Since there is precious little in their brains that wasn’t created by someone else, there isn’t much they can draw from. And since they don’t read, they don’t know how to write either. Structurally, they are equally at sea. Since electronic imagery explodes at them from all directions, little of it structured, their thought-processes tend to be equally unstructured and disjointed. This is also true when they speak in public.

Furthermore, even in the business world, non-readers are handicapped. Studies have shown that when employing CEOs test them to see which applicant would be the best fit for a job, they are often given a task composed of, say five, steps in which to reach desired completion. Deliberately and unannounced, the CEO leaves out a step. So a reader moves from step to step: A to B, B to C, C to D, D to E, and E to F—only D to E is left out. The reader reaches this abyss, is puzzled , but doesn’t give up. Since the reader has developed a part of the brain scholars call the “library,” in which the brain talks to itself, the applicant, much like a spider, launches filaments out into the void, seeking for a terminus on the other side. Sooner or later, one of the filaments touches solid ground; the applicant now bridges to the other side and moves from E to F, and completes the task. The non-reader never can complete the task. Even when both applicants are college graduates with 4-point grade A averages, the results are still the same. A neighbor of mine, an executive himself, and a veteran administrator and employer, when I shared this study with him, explained, “So that’s it! I’ve long wondered why some top graduates could problem-solve and others failed so dismally. It makes sense!”

* * * * *

Sadly, our society has yet to recognize just how essential reading is to life and career success, even in areas that are not generally considered as demanding a reading background.

Advertisements

Why Are We Americans Becoming So Dumb?

BLOG #50, SERIES 4
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
WHY ARE WE AMERICANS BECOMING SO DUMB?
December 11, 2013

It was while listening to the “Sunday Morning” broadcast that I was jolted into shock by a broadcast segment. In it, the program regular admitted how traumatized he was to discover that his increased use of electronic gadgetry such as Smartphones and aps was destroying his brain. The catalyst was his rueful discovery that he couldn’t even remember his wife’s phone number without retrieving it from an electronic index. Even more horrifying: to realize he could no longer remember how to spell common words such as “spatula,” no matter how much time he took to probe his mental memory banks. The same was true with mathematics: the electronic crutch ends up crippling the ability to do even simple math. Witness the number of individuals at restaurant and store checkout stands who are incapable of making correct change unless the machinery does it for them!

Every time I look at new lists of intelligence rankings (by nation), I wince as the U.S. continues to slip ever further down. Long gone are the days when we led the world.

In November and December of every year, I spend a large percentage of my time at book-signing tables; often with fellow Kiwanians at my side (because of our literacy program for area elementary schools), where for eleven years now, we’ve targeted third-graders. Reason being: studies reveal that unless a child falls in love with reading by the third grade, it’s not likely to ever happen at all. We are often permitted to set up our tables in large supermarkets because of this program. So we have plenty of time to watch people, young and old, as they come into, and leave, these chain stores. More and more often we are noticing a disturbing new phenomenon: children who are connected to electronic gadgetry tend to pay no attention to the books on our tables—or anything else, for that matter. But even when electronic gadgetry is not a variable, we’ve noticed that it has almost become a norm: when an approaching child’s eyes light up at the sight of books, almost invariably it turns out that the child is a homeschooler.

Even as I was watching this most recent “Sunday Morning” broadcast, and simultaneously signing complete sets of Christmas in My Heart books, I belatedly realized that the books were taking twice as long as normal to inscribe, and that my memory was fogging over and my accuracy continuing to deteriorate. Finally, I had to leave the room where the TV set was on so that I could complete my signings in the time I allocated for them.

All this causes me to question many of the so-called benefits of technology: if electronic gadgetry continues to erode our abilities to read, comprehend, articulate, write, understand, and effectively utilize abstract thought, then might we as a nation be paying way too high a price for so-called progress? Might it also turn out to be that it is not progress at all? But rather, the reverse?

In the thirty years of research poured into my 1993 book, Remote Controlled, I discovered that the more time an individual (of any age) spent watching TV, the dumber that person proved to be. And the more muddled the brains of the recipients. By extension, might it not also be true that overexposure to electronic imagery other than television will end up dumbing down the receiver’s brains even further? Reason being that those who receive pre-fab (created by someone other than the receiver) imagery rather than creating connotatively imagery through reading, being read to, radio or live drama, end up incapable of communicating effectively either in oral or in written forms. Only the reader, it turns out, is capable of writing coherent sentences and paragraphs. Non-readers, having little that is original to them in their brains to draw from, find it almost impossible to write anything creative or coherent at all!

THE PARALYSIS OF THE AMERICAN MIND – Part Two

BLOG #17, SERIES 4
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
THE PARALYSIS OF THE AMERICAN MIND
Part Two
April 24, 2013

Each day that passes, for untold millions of people, the electronic world is increasingly edging out the real world. Initially, pundits prophesied that the Brave New World of the Internet would result in bringing us closer and closer to each other. Instead, the reverse is proving true: Just look at text-messaging: it has become a substitute for real-life interaction. Look at the number of people who text-message each other in the same room—they look at the screen rather than at the real-life face. Lately, researchers are noting another result: people are becoming ever more isolated from each other; in fact, we’re losing the ability to read each other’s body language.

Another study I read just during the last week had to do with what’s happening to us sexually. Because the electronic world continues to dehumanize us, increasingly sexuality is becoming merely another sport, aerobics if you please, in which we gain momentary highs without deepening the relationship with the person who made that high possible. Consequently, rather than sex deepening the relationship between two people, increasing the love and commitment they have for each other, the reverse is proving true: throw-away relationships are becoming the norm, and not incidentally, accelerating our current epidemic of suicides.

But neither should we lose sight of the wonderful benefits of the Internet, the many ways in which it has changed our lives for the better. For instance, earlier in my writing career, when we completed a manuscript, we’d photocopy it, then take it to the Post Office and mail it certified, then wait and wait for a response on the other end. Today, a click of the mouse sends it to the recipient wherever in the world that person may be; another click of the mouse and the person on the other end acknowledges its receipt; thirty minutes later, another click of the mouse and we know what that person thinks of the manuscript after a cursory reading of it. In that respect it is indeed a Brave New World on the positive side. So I am not debunking or running down the marvelous technology that makes all this possible, but rather I am addressing some of the darker side-effects we should thoughtfully study.

There was a thirty-year-fuse that eventually ignited into my book, Remote Controlled (Review & Herald Publishing Association, 1993). In it I tackled the issue of what we were becoming as the result of our fascination with television. One finding is most apropos to this blog series: If you are listening to a live drama or radio theater, or reading a book or magazine, no two people will create the same mental imagery, for each of us creates such imagery connotatively, in association with everything else we’ve experienced in life, and building on the creative imagery created earlier by our brains, we create a new one from each such exposure. Each book we read, for instance, can be a treasure chest for hundreds of images instantly transmitted into our brain’s archives.
But now, let’s contrast that with imagery that is beamed at us electronically–be it a movie, a television program, or a video. Whether one person sees it or a billion, the image is the same: since it is pre-fab, created by someone other than the receiver of the electronic image, it is one and the same. Result: it is blasted straight into the receiver’s inner archives, bypassing the receiver’s mind, heart, and soul, for they had nothing to do with its creation. The consequences, over time, we’ve all seen. The non-readers are crippled by an inability to create well for most everything in their inner memory archives is second-hand, created by someone else!

When I have two Freshman Comp students in a class, and ask them to take out a piece of paper and get ready to write, the reader can hardly wait to begin (having so many stylistic templates to draw from), whereas the non-reader just stares glassy-eyed at that sheet of paper, unable to even begin. Having only unstructured disjointed electronic imagery to draw from, that student is, more often than not, incapable of either writing or speaking in coherent well-structured sentences and paragraphs. Hence our current epidemic of cheating in America, for non-readers, having little that is original in their heads, when faced with writing an essay, term paper, or research project, are, tragically, unable to write without cheating.

In fact CEOs have noticed that it goes on from there: they’ve discovered that if they take two applicants for a position (one a reader and the other a non-reader), and ask them to follow a five-step process to a solution to a problem (A, B, C, D, and E), deliberately leaving out a step, the reader comes to the abyss, is puzzled but not defeated by it, and almost immediately, like a spider, sends synapses out in all directions, and is thus able to bridge to the other side, continue, and arrive at a conclusion. The non-reader, having never developed that part of the brain scholars call “the library,” in which the brain has learned to talk to itself, is literally incapable of ever bridging to the other side.

So while a given non-reading person may develop marvelous skill in utilizing technology and become a whiz at creating data, that individual may be crippled by an inability to fully interpret and articulate the significance of that data.

From all that I have seen, from all that I have read, America has become a society of non-readers. And that reality alone contributes mightily to what I am calling the paralysis of the American mind.

We will conclude this tripartite series next Wednesday.