Michael J. McDonagh

An established writer who recently went to work becoming an author, trying valiantly to make someone give a damn and chronicling the process.

Archive for the tag “evolution and writing”

This is Your Brain on Words Part Two: Evolution (we’re basically a bunch of primates with books).

In this installment of the Brain on Words series, I am taking a look at the history of the human race as it relates to words on paper. Well, most of the time they were on clay tablets, but you know what I mean.

In the beginning, there was the word…

In the great evolutionary scheme of things, language is a new thing. When and where spoken language first happened has been called “the hardest question in science.” Since half the arguments I have with my daughters involve some variant of “I never said that” about something that was or wasn’t said last week, yesterday, or five minutes ago, it’s pretty easy to see why. Even if I had a time machine and a translator and could go back to the day after spoken language really happened for the first time, I’d probably find some protohuman couple standing in front of their cave and hear one of them saying, “I never said that.”

Fortunately, that part doesn’t matter a hell of a lot to us. We don’t need to get caught up in the debate about whether spoken language evolved 1.7 million years ago, as some scholars think, or 200,000 years ago, as others argue. A few even put it at about 40,000 years ago, though discoveries since the 1990s tend to discredit that view. In this analysis, though, we can just agree that it occurred “RFLTA” (a Really Fucking Long Time Ago). What matters is that homo sapiens were communicating through sound RFLTA, which was also a RFLT before they ever tried communicating through something other than sound.

It took a long freaking time for anyone to write that word down…

Writing – using agreed upon symbols to mean something – is so new that, in a evolutionary sense, the paint is still wet. Between grunting “I never said that” and anything we can really call writing, pictograms started showing up on the cave walls. They communicated ideas, but not through an agreed system of “this means that.” Instead, they just depicted the idea by showing exactly what the idea was. There was no reason to standardize them, and you didn’t need to be “literate” in any language to read them. They were, literally, just pictures:

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Cave of Altamira, depicting what appears to be a Red Bull Energy Drink product placement, dated to around 15,000 B.C.E.

In other words, pictures, not writing. Over the course of the next 12,000 years, thanks largely to prehistoric humans’ lack of cable TV and internet access, they had plenty of time to think about standardizing those pictures a little bit. If you want to spend all week painting a beautiful picture, that’s one thing. If all you want to do is say there was an animal, there’s really no reason to go all Michelangelo on it.

So, eventually, a rudimentary system for writing developed. We went from pictograms (I drew you a picture) to ideograms (we’ve agreed this picture represents that thing). Sumerian cuneiform, showing up around 3,200 B.C.E., is thought to be the first, with Egyptian Hieroglyphics arriving around the same time. Cuneiform looked like this:

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These appear to be want ads from a Sumerian newspaper, and someone is giving away free kittens.

This still isn’t writing as we know it, but it was a huge step in the right direction. This is certainly not an alphabet. It is a series of pictures that represent nouns and verbs. It was also a huge pain in the ass, with around 2,000 different symbols (although that number dwindled over time).

Ideograms were of limited use themselves, but in them were the seeds for something special. The number of symbols kept dwindling, meaning they had to cover more things. This process seems to have fed on itself until the Egyptians were down to just twenty-two symbols.

Here’s the cool part…

Those symbols no longer represented specific things. They represented sounds. By 2700 B.C.E., Egyptian hieroglyphs each represented a specific syllable that began with a single consonant of their language, plus a vowel (or no vowel) to be supplied by the native speaker. That development is huge. On a whole bunch of different levels.

Why hieroglyphs still matter

Think about this for a second – we (humans) had spoken language between two million years ago and two hundred thousand years ago, depending on who’s estimate you’re using. Not counting the time we also drew pictures on cave walls (since that’s not really “writing”), we had symbols that represented “things” for about five hundred years, total. Then we switched to syllables, the most basic component of human speech. When I say “speech,” I mean sounds we make.

We write sounds. We read sounds. Not counting the 500 years it took us to get from standardized pictures to pictures of sounds, humans have never communicated in any way other than sounds.

A little math shows how important this fact is. For something between 99% of our existence as a species (with the shortest estimate of when speech developed) to 99.99975% of our existence (with the longest estimate), we have only communicated with each other through sound. Either directly, or for a small slice of the most recent little bit, symbols that represent sounds.

It’s no accident our first written language was broken down by syllables. Syllables are single sounds, and sound is how we had been communicating at least since the development of anything we can call language. When we first developed written words to communicate ideas, they were single sounds.

And guess what?

That’s what we still do. And this is the payoff for the prehistoric history lesson. The only thing we’ve done with language since the Egyptians started associating syllables with pictures is tweak that system. The Greeks developed the first “true” alphabet, with consonants and vowels, and every writing system since is either a collection of symbols that represent syllables (e.g., the Chinese “alphabet”) or symbols that combine to form syllables (like I’m doing right now as I type this and you’re doing right now as you read it).

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It hasn’t even changed all that much

 

We didn’t evolve to read

…writing evolved (or was developed) to work with the already existing part of our brain that hears sounds. We haven’t had time to evolve, anyway. In the first place, 5,000 years isn’t enough time to evolve much –unless you’re a virus or other simple organism, Also, hardly any people have been reading for much of the 5,000 it’s been an option. Literacy has ebbed and flowed over the millennia, with a few high points if you happened to live in Rome or ancient Greece at the right time, but for the most part, we’ve been an illiterate bunch for all but about the last 300 years. Chaucer and Dante were writing for the ten percent of the population who could read, but the other ninety percent couldn’t tell Dante from Danielle Steel.

The Bottom Line

Humans have always communicated through sound. Ironically enough, that’s precisely what a writer is doing, too. Our brains have not had time to develop “reading” abilities. Instead, we have created a system that uses symbols to represent (or combine to represent) sounds – i.e., syllables. The part of our brain we use to process written words is the same part we use to listen to someone talk. As far as our brains are concerned, they’re doing the same freaking job.

This is only the first step on our journey through the whole process this series will cover, but it is a crucial one. The first thing a reader does when she looks at letters on the page is (almost always nonconsciously) translate those letters into sounds. Not words, not images or ideas – syllables. Those syllable/sounds are then “heard” by the brain and combined to form words. That process (and the things that can interfere with it going smoothly) will be a big focus of this series. All of it is predicated on the fact that all human language – spoken, sung, written, or however it comes – is the same thing as far as our brains are concerned.

Coming up next…

The weird way we created a system of writing that works ideally with eyes that spent a few million years only worried about hunting and gathering.

This is Your Brain on Words Part One: Series Prologue – er, Forward. Whatever, it’s like a summary but you can skip it if you want.

This post is the first part in a series that will attempt to answer the question: What happens when someone reads a story? The question is simple. The answer, to the extent there is consensus in the scientific community with respect to certain aspects of the answer, is complicated as hell. It’s also fascinating.

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This is your brain on words

By “What happens?” I mean, literally, what physiologically happens –from the retinal/foveal response in the eyes through the neurotransmitters all the way to creation of a little mind movie in the reader’s head. By “head” I mean the squishy, wet, amazingly complex organ that evolved for millions of years without seeing a single written word. Spoiler alert: that part about evolution is really important.

Who gives a shit?

Anyone who is interested in building a mind movie in readers’ heads, I hope. Not that I think Dickens or Nabokov gave a shit about neurobiology while writing. They were damned good at knowing its outcomes, though, and those outcomes have a lot to do with why they wrote so well. Their works, as well as every book read before or after, were all consumed in precisely the same way. It starts with a pair of retinas (actually, the fovea within those retinas). If things go well, it ends with the reader’s imagination showing him or her images that elicit real emotions. Being overly analytical, I can’t help but wonder how that magic happens. Also, I don’t believe in magic.

I do, however, believe in making things magical – or not suck, anyway. We can glean a shitload of information from the science that has been (or is being) done on this stuff. Information that can, and probably should, directly color decisions we make about word choices, use of dialect, sentence length, paragraph length, and a ton of other things we, as writers, constantly find ourselves pausing to ask questions about.

What this information won’t do

Tell you how to write a story, for starters. I’m amazed I can’t find the information I’m digging up for this series synthesized for writers anywhere else, because it provides a hell of a toolkit and answers a lot of questions writers frequently ask.

That said, owning a toolkit does not make one a carpenter. By the end of this series, you will understand why the name Ebenezer Scrooge works. Which is to say, what neurological response allowed you to read that name the first time you saw it without being pulled out of the story. Also how that name was crafted to read like words you had seen before, although you hadn’t seen that particular word, and how it allowed your brain to make immediate associations with the character and his personality based on the associative properties of the syllables in the names. I am not, however, saying that knowing that means you’ll be able to write like Dickens.

Tehere are C3RT4IN tihngs a6out wirtnig taht our brainz can D3C0DE even if tehy are worng.

And other things that are difficult for our brains to process regardless of how “correct” they are. Knowing how to lean on the strengths and avoid the weaknesses of a reader’s ability to process what we put to paper is all about making our words do their job the best way they can. Something that is ultimately decided inside someone else’s brain.

The point behind this series is to learn every hack, cheat, and trick our disposal to make that the mind movie run as cleanly as possible in the reader’s head. If the mind movie you have to offer is Ishtar or Son of the Mask, that may not be much of an improvement. But at least you’ll know what the theater looks like on the inside.

Overview of the series – what to expect

We’ll start with history and evolutionary biology. A lot of the murkiness about reading and the brain stems  from how unbefuckinglievably new reading is. (Get it? “brain stems” Bwwaahahahaha) It is so new, in fact, we haven’t had any time to evolve to perform the task. That’s not a problem, though, because we have forced the system of writing and language to evolve to work with existing features from our mostly primate brains.

Then come the eyes. The number of words we really focus on at one time (actually the number of letters, and it’s four) the number and location of the letters we nonconsciously process when we’re focused on those four letters and how our brains decide where to focus next based on that information.

The brain decodes the words. Some are easier than others. In fact, some are so easy, our brains skip them altogether, assuming their presence and intent based mostly on shape. Other words shut off our reading (in the adult, fluent reader sense) and make us revert to tools we used when we were first learning to read; a process that readers, understandably, hate. That was the point behind saying “unbefuckinglevably,” above. The process for determining the meaning of that made up word is entirely different from the process of deciphering (or intuitively knowing and moving on from) every other word in the sentence.

The words have meanings. Even words we’ve never seen or heard before can have direct, concrete meaning based on our intuitive use of language. The entire point behind writing is to create meaning in the reader’s mind. Much of how that occurs (and what can interfere with it) is firmly rooted in neurobiology. Most of that neurobiology was developed for spoken language, and we created written word systems to encode spoken word systems. Those spoken-word brain centers are still what process the written words. And, yes, that was the point behind the “brain stems” joke.

Those meanings create images. This field is new and exciting. The translation of words on paper into pictures –the mind movie. Some things facilitate that, others interfere, and knowing which do what is powerful writing mojo.

Images create emotions. The holy grail of writing – causing a reader to experience genuine emotion. Or, stated in my geeky way, causing the reader to have a physiological response to the words on the page. Something that best happens when the reader has forgotten she is looking at words on a page.

More than anything, the point behind this series is a highly specialized and technical version of putting ourselves in the reader’s shoes. Understanding what the reader actually experiences sheds a bright light on those things that facilitate or interfere with the reader’s experience.

So ends my forward/prologue/overview. Up next: This is Your Brain on Words Part Two: Evolution (we’re basically a bunch of primates with books).

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