"Your Brain on Text"
Kit Wilson on the affects of abstraction and how we view the world
Reading the spring 2022 issue of The New Atlantis, I came across a fantastic essay by Kit Wilson entitled “Reading Ourselves to Death.” I’m always a sucker for a good Neil Postman reference, so I dove right in, and it didn’t disappoint.
Wilson opens with a thought experiment. You’re in a room with no access to the outside world. In the first version, you have a computer terminal that can only show you text descriptions and information about the outside world. In another, you have only audio/video access to what’s happening in the outside world. In Wilson’s reckoning, while in neither case do you have a great understanding of what’s happening, in the text-only case, you wind up imagining what’s happening in increasing abstract ways as time goes on because you don’t have anything to ground your visions in reality.
Clearly, none of us have experienced anything remotely as dramatic as either scenario. But the text-only terminal is a useful exaggeration of what, at a much subtler level, has happened to all of us over the last few decades. We are awash in text. The cumulative cultural effect is a kind of mass delusion. We may believe that all this text somehow captures reality. But as the words engulf us, the world recedes ever more from our grasp.1
Wilson details some neurological and sociological implications of this engulfing, noting how we can’t help but become wrapped up in these worlds in our minds.
We are so used to screens bombarding us with text–news, tweets, emails–that we are almost surprised to discover that the walls around us have nothing to say. The sudden absence of words–the evaporation of the sense of control they give us–feels disorienting.2
We live in such a text-rich world, flowing with information at the seams, that it becomes an assumption that we should be intaking information. The pre-disposition towards input has trade-offs.
…Every time we read, we inevitably conceptualize the world, in perhaps an ever-increasingly abstract way. And it’s conceivable that we may reach a point where those abstracting effects go too far.
…A. G. Sertillanges wrote in The Intellectual Life: “The mind is dulled, not fed, by inordinate reading, it is made gradually incapable of reflection and concentration, and therefore of production. Never read when you can reflect; read only, except in moments of recreation, what concerns the purpose you are pursuing; and read little, so as not to eat up your interior silence.” Peter Thorpe argued in Why Literature Is Bad for You that the negative effects of reading outweigh the positive: “If we become too involved in the beautiful imitation, we can begin to lose touch with the real thing." Richard Weaver wrote in Ideas Have Consequences that, in retrospect, the invention of writing was a mixed blessing.3
So, should we scrap all reading and writing? Of course not. But we do have to recognize that all media have trade-offs. We live in a world of so much information that reflection becomes an extravagance. We have so much to intake that we don’t feel we have time for reflection and to nurture an interior life that’s not guided at all times by input. This is not to say that media that stimulate the imagination are not good and helpful, but we must balance intake with reflection.
How can you take some time to reflect?
And with that, thanks for reading. See you again soon.