Books, Brains, Baboons, Buddhism and Barry White.
Much like a caterer for a zombie luncheon, I’ve had brains on the brain this last week, and right now I am messing with your mind. As your mind assembles these letters into words, combine words into phrases, and then subsequently process those phrases and sentences in conjunction with each other your brain begins to form a model that is similar to the one I’ve created in my mind. My suggestions have an effect on you; the internal voice you are reading this in will suddenly change when I tell you to read it in my sultry deep Barry White bass… can’t get enough? Research has shown that reading actually rewires your brain, using several different areas originally designed for other tasks to translate a series of symbols into language. While this process may come with a trade-off, i.e. if you read more you might not be able to recognize faces, other research has shown that, because reading uses so many different areas, it actually strengthens the connections in your brain.
So, what should you read for a strong and healthy brain? Why fiction of course! A recent article by Annie Murphy Paul in the New York Times called “Your Brain on Ficiton”, delves into research that shows that fiction, because it mimics real-life situations, can actually help us understand the “complexities of social life.” A good short story or novel functions along the lines of a flight simulator, running us through interactions and events that our brains conjure and process thereby training us on what to do and what not to do in a particular situation. Fiction in this respect functions as a form of meditation or dream, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. in his opening to Bagombo Snuff Box likened the reading of short stories to “a bunch of Buddhist cat naps.”
Which is exactly why my blog is completely unhealthy for you but completely addicting… can’t get enough? You see, where reading off the page or the act of reading fiction involves the concentrated effort of mental processes, reading off the internet, especially hyperlinked text, actually shatters focus. Items read off the internet are comprehended only at a superficial level, the information we glean off the internet is primarily transferred to the short term memory and very little of it passes into long term memory, in other words, in one ear and out the other. Nicholar Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, asserts that the internet “is, in a metaphorical sense, a reversal of the early trajectory of civilization: We are evolving from cultivators of personal knowledge into hunters and gatherers in the electronic data forest. In the process, we seem fated to sacrifice much of what makes our minds so interesting.” This also may explain why no one was able to select a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction this year.
On the bright side, though our brains may be devolving into their primate origins because of the internet, it was announced last week that baboons can read, or at least recognize real words amongst fake words. My hope is that future experiments with baboons will involve typewriters, or at the very least Microsoft Word, in order to test the infinite monkey theorem. The idea, if you’re not familiar with it, is akin to Jorge Luis Borges’ story “The Library of Babel” in which ream after ream of pages typed by monkeys will ultimately produce the great works of literature through sheer probability of letter combinations. Some “real world” experiments have already been conducted in the last few years, but the results show that those primates writing books are not quite there yet when it comes to producing “a classic”.