My copy of Stanislas Dehaene’s Reading in the Brain is, shamefully, still residing on my shelf.  I’ve been distracted by Heidegger, Hubert Dreyfus (to help me understand Heidegger), Graham Harman and Bernard Stiegler (to confuse me about Heidegger again), and I’ve basically neglected my reading on the neuropsychology of reading to pursue the phenomenology of technology.  I got linked to Dehaene’s interview with Scientific American, however, and my interest has been sparked all over again.  In the interview the following exchange takes place:

SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN: [I]f the brain of a dyslexic is organized differently, does that suggest that it might have other abilities – or is dyslexia purely an impairment?

DEHAENE: This isn’t fully known, but I was intrigued by recent research which indicates that dyslexic children and adults can be better on tasks of symmetry detection – they have a greater ability to notice the presence of symmetrical patterns, and the evidence even suggests that this was helpful in a group of astrophysicists to detect the symmetrical spectrum of black holes!

My theory is that mirror recognition is one of the functions that we have to partially ‘un-learn’ when we learn to read – it is a universal feature of the primate brain that is, unfortunately, inappropriate in our alphabet where letters p, q, d and b abound.  By somehow managing to maintain this ability, dyslexics might be at some advantage in visual, spatial or even mathematical tasks.

More generally, we are touching here on the very interesting issue of whether cultural recycling makes us lose some abilities that were once useful in our evolution.  The brain is a finite system, so although there are overwhelming benefits of education, there might also be some losses.

I’ve always found this idea striking, that the notion we ‘push out’ old knowledge by gaining new knowledge might actually be sort of true.  There’s evidence, for example, that some people who become blind experience a withering of the visual areas of their brains, and a concomitant enlargement of the auditory or somatosensory apparatus, the ‘super senses’ of the visually impaired riffed on in Daredevil.  This can be seen as a gain (of greater auditory/tactile sensitivity) at the expense of a loss (of, unused but still functional, visual cortex).  There are hundreds of other examples in the literature, from learning braille expanding the size of the region controlling fingertip sensation at the expense of the surrounding areas, to juggling expanding grey matter in visual and motor regions (also see Norman Doidge’s The Brain That Changes Itself).

But it wasn’t really brains that came to mind when I read the Dehaene interview, it was typewriters, or rather keyboards.  The standard qwerty keyboard was designed by Charles Latham Sholes in the 1870s.  The agreed upon design prior to this was

“a rectangular arrangement of keys…in alphabetical order.  The levers manipulated by the keys were large and ungainly, and the size, spacing, and arrangement of the keys were dictated by these mechanical considerations, not by the characteristics of the human hand…Why did the alphabetical ordering change?  To overcome a mechanical problem.  When the typist went too quickly the typebars would collide, jamming the mechanism.  The solution was to change the locations of the keys: letters such as i and e that were often typed in succession were placed on opposite sides of the machine so that their bars would not collide…In the end, the keyboard was designed through an evolutionary process, but the main driving forces were mechanical.  Modern keyboards do not have the same problems; jamming isn’t a possibility with electronic keyboards and computers…In the end, the qwerty keyboard was adopted throughout the world with but minor variations.  We are committed to it, even though it was designed to satisfy constraints that no longer apply…and [it] is difficult to learn…There is a better way – the Dvorak keyboard…It is easier to learn and allows for about 10 percent faster typing, but that is simply not enough of an improvement to merit a revolution in the keyboard.  Millions of people would have to learn a new style of typing.  Millions of typewriters would have to be changed.  The severe constraints of existing practice prevent change, even where the change would be an improvement” (Donald Norman, The Design of Everyday Things, pp146,147,&148)

This story resonated, somehow, as I read Dehaene talk about the dyslexic brain as, not deficient, but processing differently, perhaps still performing in some ways as an illiterate brain where, similar to the evolution of keyboards, ‘the severe constraints of existing practice prevent change.’  The brain of the non-reader, of course, is not somehow inferior, and on Dehaene’s account may actually outperform literate individuals at certain tasks (see also Maryanne Wolf’s discussion of the artistic abilities of her dyslexic son (who draws very proficiently upside down!), and other examples of dyslexics who excel at visual and other tasks).  In order to learn to read you’ve got to unlearn something that the brain comes hardwired with, ‘mirror recognition,’ so that skill’s pathway can be put to use in the task of reading.  The same can be said of keyboards: to switch to a possibly preferred mode (Dvorak) would be to give up the ease of the (culturally) ‘hard-wired’ qwerty keyboard.  Sticking with qwerty is a dys-function, a different proficiency than one which might be currently culturally preferred.

This is the worry I have with the sometimes desperate tone of those committed to bound-book reading, or those expounding the virtues of the digital: are bound-books qwerty, the hardwired function we’d actually, in the current environment, be better rid of, but can’t yet shed?  Or are they the more efficient Dvorak that the next generation might lose, unable to deploy them because the ebookish dys-function is becoming  culturally hardwired?  A strange metaphor perhaps, but one which has been buzzing round my head.  The keyboards, and the evolution of the brain, show that use breeds use until it sticks and becomes normalised, becomes ‘common sense,’ becomes ‘how it is,’ and then it’s really hard to see what might actually be best for the time you’re living in.

I really don’t know if this is the time for books or ebooks en masse.  I’ve made my own decision (books until tablets get cheaper, and easier on the eye, probably 18 months away), I’d just hate for anything as culturally important as reading to be dictated by what the herd has followed (this is more important than Betamax vs VHS…).  That’s why maintaining the debates, the questions, about the future of reading is so vital, and why sticking to our guns in the face of any evidence contrary to our opinions might spell disaster.

Editor’s Note: Matt Hayler is a PhD Researcher at the University of Exeter.  He is interested in all forms of resistance to the digitisation of the written word, but particularly resistance stemming from human neuropsychological and phenomenological interaction with physical objects and the widespread idea that technology is ‘unnatural.’  He blogs at http://4oh4-wordsnotfound.blogspot.com and you can follow him on twitter – @cryurchin


  1. The keyboard array is an interesting topic . It relates to arbitrary circumstances of spelling frequency and alphabetic order. All of these, the lay of print cases, and keyboards of composing machines and typewriter/computers, relate to writing, not to reading although it is a great question as to how habituated manipulation relates to reading and to interface of hand-held devices.

    For the direct connections between composition and reading you may want to look beyond spelling frequency and alphabetic order. More direct connection would be in punctuation, line length, word spacing and hyphenation. This is in the array of words, not letters. Punctuation was invented and elaborated with the advent of printing. Remnant letter ligatures crossed the transition, but it was the formalization of type sorts for such as periods and parenthesis and space material that have had a more pervasive effect across both writing and reading.

    Digital technology has intensified the influence of punctuation across the writing/reading divide with innovations such as the delete key or embedded spellers or grammar check. Curiously we have not yet advanced beyond the letterpress composer’s skill at hyphenation or line justification.

    Asian printing does involve type cases and keyboards of words and this was even tried in alphabetic newspaper keyboards. Visual and diagrammatic literacy also utilizes special conventions of punctuation.

    But back to your point; manipulative navigation plays a role in haptics of touch screen prompting and every indication is that the visual touch keyboard will not work. So I would not be too concerned that the template of habituated keyboard skill will necessarily be a useful trope for projection of reading efficiency. Modification of linear writing/reading path could overwhelm textual comprehension.

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