As you scan these lines, your eyes and brain are performing such astounding technical feats that no machine can possibly duplicate them….With the temperature at 33 degrees, the Boulevard Beurdon was absolutely deserted. Further down, the
Gustave Flaubert’s novel Bouvard and Pécuchet, you didn’t think you were performing an extraordinary feat. Yet, for a few seconds, you were putting your brain through gymnastics so complex that no scientist has yet described them fully. Indeed, trying to grasp what happens when we read involves ophthalmology, pedagogy, neurology, linguistics, psychology, computer science, cybernetics and more.
Our work, our lives as citizens, our leisure activities, almost all rely on the printed word. Even going for a stroll means reading posters, shop signs, street names. But reading as we now know it became commonplace only relatively recently. The Greeks and Romans had professional readers who read aloud, and through the early Middle Ages monks continued to do the same. Because the custom in contemporary writing was to run words together, often in abbreviated form and without spaces or punctuation, a professional was needed to make sense of a text. Try reading a whole book written like this: FURTHERDOWNTHESTMARTINCANALWITHBOTHLOCKSCLOSEDDISPYKEDASTRAIGHTLINEOFINKYCOLOUREDWATERINTHEMIDDLEOFITWASABOATLOADEDWITHWOODANDONTHEBANKSTWOROWSOFBARRELS.
reading is too often taught orally, syllable by syllable, even many adults are unable to break the habit of pronouncing the words as they read. While the average person can read close to 500 words a minute, and a highly skilled reader up to 1 000, readers who must pronounce the words as they go achieve a speed of only 100 to 150.
Shortly before 1900 it was discovered that when we read, our eyes do not move smoothly from left to right along a line of print, but rather in lightning-fast jumps. Without our being aware of it, our eyes divide each line into six or seven portions of some ten letters each, bouncing from one segment to the next in a mind-boggling one-250 000th of a second. We need only a quarter or a third of a second to identify each group of letters. What do we do with individual letters? Nothing! We don’t even look, at them. In reading the Flaubert excerpt, you did not add c+a+n+a+l; you immediately recognized the shape of the word “canal.” Only unfamiliar words are read letter by letter. In fact, in 1843, a solicitor named Leclair found that if words were cut in half horizontally, the upper half was still enough for us to recognize the meaning.
Moreover, thanks to the mass of information filed away by the neurons, our brain can very often anticipate the end of a sentence while our eyes are still perusing the beginning. As the seventeenth century philosopher René Descartes once wrote, “When we see a hat from our window we deduce from it that a man is going by.” So too, linguists explain, such short words as “and,” “so,” “for,” “thus,” “in fact”, act as signposts to warn us of what’s coming and sharply-accelerate our forward movement as we read.
The brain is often compared to a computer, but a computer does only what it is programmed to do, whereas the brain’s ability to improvise is really unlimited. Furthermore, a computer, unlike the human brain, must decipher words letter by letter. Understanding what we read means constantly coordinating the text with what we can find in our memory.
We still know very little about how memory functions, though we can distinguish between two kinds of memory. What scientists call our “short-term memory” is lamentably weak. For example, we are unable to remember more than about 15 words for more than 20 seconds after reading them. This is why we sometimes forget the beginning of a sentence before we’ve reached its end, especially if we have to turn a page in mid-sentence.
Our “long-term memory,” on the other hand is truly perplexing. When we read a text, this memory helps us to filter it, reject what seems useless, simplify for storage what relates to our personal concerns, and compare it with what we already know, change or ignore it if it runs into unconscious psychological blocks. This tremendous job of sorting, blending, deducing, assimilating and filing, is all done at unimaginable speed by our long- term memory, while our eyes continue to follow, the lines of text and our brain anticipates what is about to be read.
At the end of this extremely complex chain of operations, only the overall meaning is usually retained, but months, even years, later the slightest incident can evoke what we have once read. It has been touted that a written text, in calling forth all the resources of the intelligence, makes a reader a producer, not a consumer. Many people literally “see” what they read, we visualize while reading. The sentence is always less descriptive than what we see. For instance, when we read, “The eagle dived at the man,” most of us will see the bird plunging with talons outstretched and, perhaps, the man shielding himself with his arms. None of that is in the sentence as we read it.
This uncanny ability to find reality behind small printed symbols need not have anything to do with intelligence. It's an aptitude like being able to run fast, and readers who visualize the most have the best memories. Experiments also prove that, for some material, readers who read faster than the average remember more. Fast readers are also generally voracious readers. Techniques are readily available today that can considerably improve reading speed, if properly applied. But even without studying technique, we all read much faster than we speak. While a radio or television announcer talks at a rate of 9 000 words an hour, an average person can read three times as fast. Thus 20 minutes of news reported on television represents barely the equivalent in information of three columns in a printed newspaper. This alone would explain why radio, films and television have failed to replace books.
The invention of printing enabled us to escape the tyranny of the spoken word, and has fostered free will and the critical sense. All the mind’s great modern conquests are the result of these two GOD-GIVEN privileges! – (adapted from JEAN-MARIE JAVRON)
Happy and fruitful reading ~