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.

I Have Seen Tomorrow! Part Two

BLOG #32, SERIES #3
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
I HAVE SEEN TOMORROW!
Part Two
August 8, 2012

As we know, an epiphany is a life-changing day. Looking backwards through time, we can pick out certain days that, had they not have been, our lives would have taken a different trajectory than was true with them. I strongly suspect that our tour through the great printing plant may prove to be one of them.

Our illustrious guide honed our sense of anticipation by hyping in almost every room we toured the piéce de résistance that awaited us at the end: something—we weren’t told what—that would radically change the publishing world.

But early on, we were ushered through the world we knew. What shocked us was our guide’s off-hand dismissal of them as being already passé. Examples: “This machine [huge, filling most of a very large room] was state of the art back in 2000” . . . . “This machine [yes it was built in Germany like so many of the finest and fastest printing machines] came out in 2003. Dated now” . . . . “This machine came out in 2005—revolutionary for its time” . . . . “This made real waves back in 2008″ . . . . This machine—oh it’s so 2010!” [as if it were already a dinosaur]. “This is one of our newest ones—2011—still the best of its kind.” And then: 2012.

After being plied with question about why 2012 was so significant in the history of printing, our guide pointed out that for over half a millennium—ever since Gutenberg—,speed has been the constant goal. If the fastest press known to man could run off 100 sheets in an hour, one that could do 200 represented a notable breakthrough. So there came a long line of ever-faster machines, machines that made obsolete everything slower that came before.

He showed us the current workhorse of the establishment: one they used for print-runs for 20,000 – 30,000 books at a time. They are so expensive to purchase and operate that they lose money on book-runs of fewer than 20,000 copies. I had a sudden flashback: hearing editors say, “Unless your book sells a minimum of 20,000 copies, we’re not interested in keeping it in print.” “So could this machine be the reason?” I asked our guide. “Bingo!” was the response.

But back to the break-through machine. Our guide informed us that throughout printing history lithography (dot-based printing) has had a finite limit—sort of like the old sound-barrier (many prophesied that no one would ever be able to fly faster than sound); but, as we all know, that threshold has long since been passed, so that today no one knows whether or not there is a limit to aeronautical speed.

Seeing the bemused look on our faces, our guide smiled and said, “Here’s the problem that has faced modern engineers for so long that many maintained we’d reached our printing speed ceiling. As the press spits out printed sheets at faster and faster speeds, you reach a point where the ink blurs, blobs (loses its distinctiveness), and you’re forced to back off. But companies—even nations, especially printing giants such as Germany and Japan—have for years been in an engineering race to see which one might accomplish the impossible: break the printing speed barrier.

And then we walked into another room—and there it was!. To the deep chagrin of Germany and Japan, Hewlett Packard’s engineers came up with the break-through. So America can yet triumph technologically over the rest of the world. Our guide tried to explain how, in layman’s terms, the miracle works: a different sequence of print color applications—I must confess, as being one of the world’s most technologically deprived thinkers, that I only vaguely understand why this one works and all the others don’t. All I know is that it does. And TerryBolinger and I were able to reverently touch one of fewer than a dozen such machines in the world.

Now, they say, using this breakthrough technology, press-runs may now speed up so fast, thanks to nanotechnology, that there appears to be no upper limits—opening up the probability that sooner than one might think, authors will be told that the next big machine will print so fast that only the works of best-selling authors selling in seven, eight, or nine figures will qualify.

So, does this mean all hope is gone for all of us lesser-lights? Is there no hope for the continuing existence of slower-selling but continuing-to-sell books that never go out of vogue?

We’ll get into that next Wednesday.