A Conversation with Livia Blackburne.
Livia is author of From Words To Brain. Read also: Can neuroscience teach you to be a better writer?.
Tom, experimental psychologist, is the author of The Narrative Escape. Twitter: @TomStafford
First off, could you summarise what the essay is about, for people who haven't read it, please?
Sure. We go on a tour of what happens in the brain when you read.
From the very first level of decoding the actual characters, to seeing how the brain interprets these words into pictures, and then how we put those pictures together to form a coherent story that has meaning.
At each of these levels, I explain a bit about what happens and share some interesting neuroscience.
What was your ambition in writing this essay (and/or what put the idea into your head?)
It's kind of a natural result of my science life and my writing life. For my dissertation research, I'm looking at children learn to read, and how their brain changes as they get better at reading. I'm also a novelist, so I spent a lot of time thinking about words and how they make us think and feel different things. So when you put those two together, you end up with a story about the entire reading process.
Could you say something about your own experience of reading: how did you learn to read? How do you like to read now - sitting at home, on a train, on an ebook, what?)
I moved to the states from Taiwan when I was five, so I learned to read about a year after I learned to speak English. I was a voracious reader as a child. My parents were always chasing me down and taking my books away so I would do other things.
After I went to college, I stopped reading for pleasure -- I was under the impression that I didn't have time. Thankfully, I got over that and now read quite a bit. I tend to be an impatient reader, so I usually power through a book the first time I read it to get the plot, often missing a lot of the details. After I finish, I might go back and read my favorite sections a little more slowly. I have a bad habit of reading while I brush my teeth, and my dentist recently warned me that my gums are receding because I've been brushing my teeth for too long.
You trace the processing involved in reading, getting to meaning last. Some psychologists would argue that meaning is present in our perception of something (such as a word) from the very start. What would you say to those psychologists?
I assume you're talking about priming, where even seeing a word for a flash of a few milliseconds will bring up some associations that can be subconsciously detected.
The psychologists are certainly right that those effects happen, and they have the experimental data to prove it. I think the confusion lies in the fact that there are many different types of meaning. Yes, we will understand a word within a few milliseconds, or at least part of our subconscious will, but that's not really the meaning that we care about when we read a story. We care about the events of the story, the characters, the lessons that we draw. And most of that comes after we finished the book, when we are turning the story over and over in our heads.
I love the work you describe which proves that visual imagery is automatic. Can you describe that briefly for us please?
I like that research too Participants in experiment read sentences such as "The Ranger saw an eagle in the sky." After that, they saw pictures on a computer screen and had to say whether or not the object in the picture appeared in the sentence they just read.
Interestingly, people were faster to identify a picture of an eagle if it had its wings spread out (as opposed to folded at its side). This suggests that when the participants read the sentence, they automatically brought up a picture of a flying eagle (with wings spread out) in their minds, even though nobody told them to.
Why do you think stories exist, psychologically? What is it that you think they do?
I can think of a few reasons.
First, our brains are wired to search for meaning. If something happens, we immediately try to find a cause and effect. We want to make sense of the world, and stories cater to that instinct and help us fine structure in the world.
Second, it's our nature as social animals. We like to spend time with other people, and we like to hear about things that happen to other people.
Third, it's a way to teach and pass along information. If we hear a story about a friend who got mugged at a particular neighborhood, we pick up valuable information about whether or not we should walk there at night. With stories, we learn about situations we haven't experienced ourselves.
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