Q&A with Livia Blackburne on Neuroscience of Reading and Writing discussion

From Words to Brain: Neuroscience and writing

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message 1: by Livia (new)

Livia Blackburne (lkblackburne) | 28 comments Mod
If anyone has questions about neuroscience and reading (either related to From Words to Brain, or just something you've been wondering about), I will attempt to answer them here.

message 2: by Robin (new)

Robin Mizell (robin_mizell) A recent piece on PsyBlog titled "The Zeigarnik Effect" describes how research has demonstrated that people are more likely to recall an interrupted task than a completed task. A comparison is made to serial (or suspenseful) fiction. An author's use of cliffhangers keeps a story on readers' minds, and they feel compelled to finish reading.

I'm curious about the prevalent contention that being distracted from something we're reading, particularly by online diversions, hinders what Nicholas Carr calls "deep reading." I happen to disagree with Carr's conclusions in his book THE SHALLOWS: WHAT THE INTERNET IS DOING TO OUR BRAINS, by the way. In my experience, distraction isn't a permanent mental state.

Do these two observations contradict each other, or am I oversimplifying?

message 3: by [deleted user] (new)

Hi Livia

I trust that you get the type and number of questions you want and can cope with, and that my questions don't put you off !

I am a technical writer (of evidence-based medical practice guidelines), so am probably quite unusual in your group. But, I have recently become interested in how neuroscience can help us understand what helps and what hinders communication. I have a (short) list of (big) issues, but will just mention one to start with.


The world is very complex, and the brain interprets it by simplifying the impressions it gets from the senses. You can see how it does this with language. Here is my understanding of how prepositions, verbs, and nouns simplify the world.

Prepositions divide the world into just two categories: things that are on, and things that are off; things that are up, and things that are down; ...

The tense of verbs divides the world into three categories: stuff that is past; stuff that is "present" (in our awareness of "now", which is about 3 seconds); and stuff that is in the future.

Concrete nouns are stored like cartoons, abstractions with just the essential features, but with many associations. Abstract nouns are stored as associations, without a cartoon.

The relevance to technical writing is that this helps explain why oversimplification is such an easy trap to fall into, and so hard to avoid. For example, a complex study will be reported in the media (and in the press release) as showing that X causes Y, or A is an effective treatment for B. All the complexities of context and uncertainties in measurement have been reduced to a simple direction: harmful (safe), or effective (or ineffective).

I got my information mostly from reading books by Stephen Pinker on language, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson on metaphor, Gerd Gigerenzer on risk and probability, and Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner on concepts.

So, here is my first question for you: do you have any evidence-based advice on how best to communicate complex issues and how to avoid oversimplification?

Thanks very much.

PS. My next question might be on the neuroscience of narrative and how narrative relates to frame, metaphor, conceit, and concept.

PPS And the next question might be on the lateralization of thinking.

message 4: by [deleted user] (new)


There is a great RSA Animate with Steven (apologies for the mis-spelling in my post above) Pinker talking about "Language as a Window into Human Nature"


message 5: by Naomi Ruth (new)

Naomi Ruth (naomiruthwrites) | 3 comments This stuff sounds so super interesting. I have only recently read anything about neurology (The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks) and I find it so fascinating.

message 6: by Kari J. (new)

Kari J. | 3 comments Robin wrote: "A recent piece on PsyBlog titled "The Zeigarnik Effect" describes how research has demonstrated that people are more likely to recall an interrupted task than a completed task. A comparison is made..."


I don't know much about neuropsychology but what I do know is that if you get out of the practice of doing something, when you go back to do it, it's not going to be as easy as it was when you stopped--or it won't SEEM as easy. (I wonder if part of that is muscle memory, but I digress...)

The Internet is a wonderful tool. As everything is easy accessed on the Internet, a lot of people (myself and hubby included) find that instead of trying to rack our brains remembering something, we'll Google it instead. Note: remember if we don't use it, we lose it. Needless to say, the connections that we would normally use in remembering something that's "on the tip of our tongue" aren't used as completely as they once were--we take the shortcut and go to Google.

Also, as I've mentioned elsewhere, everything is in bite-size, ready-to-eat pieces. News articles, blog posts, even stories are written for the Internet to be scannable--the authors knowing that the reader's attention has to be firmly caught before they will read anything in much more depth. People who are wanting to learn to blog "for money" are told that their content needs to be scannable because the average viewer isn't going to sit down and read a long diatribe on the benefits of XYZ.

I think, because of this, some people's ability to concentrate has lessened--but again, because they haven't used their "concentration" muscles in a long time. Not that they will never be able to concentrate again, but that they will have to work on developing their concentration muscles again.

I completely agree with you that distraction is not a permanent state. The Internet has made it a great deal easier to become distracted but, if I may, if you compare the Internet to television, I think it's going to go through a similar phase. My stepfather, who was raised while television was developing, only wants to watch television in the evenings when he gets home from work. He sits down, watches TV, goes to sleep on the couch and, at some point, will wake up, turn off the TV and then go to bed.

My husband and I, on the other hand, were raised in the era of the Internet--where THAT'S what we do instead. Mind you--I'm not going to weigh the benefits of the Internet vs the television here--that's not the point.

The point is we grew out of the television stage of our childhood into the Internet stage of our adulthood. Isn't it possible that others (like us) are doing the same and this NEXT generation who is growing up with the Internet will find something else to take it's place? Ok, if not the next one, then somewhere down the line :)

What do you think? :)

message 7: by Robin (new)

Robin Mizell (robin_mizell) Hi, Kari:

You seem to be considering 1) habit formation, 2) long-term memory capacity, 3) certain readers' preference for brevity, 4) attention span, 5) synaptic plasticity, and 6) preferences in entertainment media. If I interpret your conclusion correctly, you've noticed that most people tend to seek entertainment and news in the medium most familiar to their generation (and culture), but people's habits don't permanently alter their brains, as they can develop new habits (when motivated). Please correct me if I’ve misunderstood.

I would agree that people's tastes and their tendency to conform socially will influence their choices of what to read. The question Livia might like to answer is whether neuroscientists have detected differences in brain structure that will predispose people to either long or short attention spans.

message 8: by Livia (new)

Livia Blackburne (lkblackburne) | 28 comments Mod
Wow, what a great discussion! Responses to this thread will take a bit more thought than responses to the others, so I won't be able to get to all of these tonight, but I will start at the beginning and gradually work my way down.

Robin – that's a very interesting link. Thanks for pointing it out. It's funny because when researching my essay, I ran across some research on interrupted events that's almost the opposite of the first link. Some researchers found that people have worse memories for events in TV shows that were interrupted by a commercial break -- ie, the cliffhanger before a commercial. I believe the article is here:


While this research and Carr's research may seem to contradict the Psyblog results, I don't think that's necessarily the case. The Psyblog results talk about what is happening when you're in the process of being interrupted. When that happens, you're still holding things in your working memory. Therefore, it's foremost in your mind until it's resolved. It's more of a short-term type of memory.

The other two articles take a longer-term to point of what happens after the interruption ends. In this type of research seems to suggest that long-term research and long-term recall of events is worse when your initial processing or encoding of it is interrupted. And that fits in with older psychology research showing that deep thoughtful processing improves memory formation.

message 9: by Russ (new)

Russ (RussellD) | 1 comments Hi,

Robin, thanks for the note on this discussion. I believe attention span and the ability to set and then focus on a goal at hand is a frontal lobe left brain function, although, as with most things in the brain, complex networks are involved. If a person suffers left hemisphere frontal lobe damage, they might still be able to respond to stimuli, but their ability or motivation to plan ahead and act on those plans may be affected. In the context we are discussing here, people more adept at setting and adhering to internally generated goals may be better able to handle disturbances in their plans and activities (i.e., and return to them more effortlessly); those less adept at goal setting and achieving might find it more difficult to return to a project post such interruptions. Gabrielle Giffords injury may result in something similar...

message 10: by Robin (new)

Robin Mizell (robin_mizell) Russ, it's good to see you here. I knew you'd appreciate both the neurological and psychological aspects of these questions. I struggle to think of them separately.

Livia, thanks for reminding me what long-term memory really is. This is where it gets tricky. As you're saying, long-term memory isn't necessarily used for, let's say, the novel I'm reading, if nothing about my experience of the novel is significant enough to compel me to recall it much beyond the day I discuss it with my book club. On the other hand, I might put serious effort into storing in long-term memory the details of a book on contracts, or even the Chicago Manual of Style.

Michael, I'm eager to see Livia's answers to your questions about oversimplification, of which I'm too often guilty. Have you read anything about the new book by James Geary, I IS AN OTHER: THE SECRET LIFE OF METAPHOR AND HOW IT SHAPES THE WAY WE SEE THE WORLD?

message 11: by [deleted user] (new)

Robin, thanks for the tip about James Geary's book - I have put it on my wish list at Amazon!

message 12: by Livia (new)

Livia Blackburne (lkblackburne) | 28 comments Mod
Michael – I don't know of any direct experiments that test communication methods and their effect on simplification, but I can speculate a bit. I will say that simplification serves a useful purpose when used correctly. It encapsulates groups of concepts so we can communicate and think about things efficiently. For example, if we all have the concept of a kitchen, then we don't have to go into details about a stove, pots and pans, etc. The problems arise when there are complexities in the encapsulated concepts that are glossed over. It's important then, to know your audience. What concepts do they know, what complexities are they aware of, and what needs to be pointed out to them? Experts will know more of the terminology so you can explain things to them in fewer words. They will also be familiar with the complexities, so you may not have to give as many caveats. Beginners on the other hand, do not know as much. You'll have to feed them in smaller chunks and point out complexities as you get to them. But this is a problem that psychologists have not yet been able to solve. We face it ourselves when we teach classes like psychology 101 . You want to explain all sides of every study, but it's impossible within the limitations of one course. On the other hand, oversimplifying feels like you're lying to the students sometimes. So it's a delicate balance.

message 13: by [deleted user] (new)

Livia, thanks for your very clear summary of the problem.

message 14: by [deleted user] (new)

I just came across this fascinating statement in a typical Ben Goldacre blog:

"The post-marxist social theorist Theodore Adorno, for example, who I quote only because it amuses me to quote a post-marxist social theorist, wrote at length about the psychodynamic links between astrology and fascism, about the need for rightwing ideologists, and especially their followers, to have simple, clear, authoritative narratives, rigid systems, patterns, and structures that make sense of the world."

I think that the need for simple, clear authoritative narratives applies to ideologists on the right, on the left, and in the middle.

***Links trail***

From http://bengoldacre.posterous.com/some...

through http://www.badscience.net/2006/12/the...

to http://www.amazon.co.uk/Stars-Earth-S...

message 15: by Livia (new)

Livia Blackburne (lkblackburne) | 28 comments Mod
Michael wrote: "PPPS

There is a great RSA Animate with Steven (apologies for the mis-spelling in my post above) Pinker talking about "Language as a Window into Human Nature"


Hey guys, I just checked out that video. It's really interesting. Go take a look .

message 16: by Livia (new)

Livia Blackburne (lkblackburne) | 28 comments Mod
Naomi wrote: "This stuff sounds so super interesting. I have only recently read anything about neurology (The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks) and I find it so fascinating."

Naomi --
Oliver Sacks is great. Steve Pinker also has some interesting stuff. I've heard that Dan Ariely has some good books too, but I haven't read them yet.

message 17: by Livia (new)

Livia Blackburne (lkblackburne) | 28 comments Mod
Kari -- regarding concentration. I think computers and internet are a double edged sword. On the one hand, I think you're right that we're losing attention span, being less able to concentrate on things without constant distraction. On the other, there is some evidence that playing video games actually increases your capacity for other types of attention. Video gamers are able to process things they see more quickly, which makes sense when you think about what they do all day. The brain tries to adapt itself to whatever environment it's exposed to, which may make it less suited for other environments.

message 18: by Livia (new)

Livia Blackburne (lkblackburne) | 28 comments Mod
robin - about brain differences and long/short attention spans. Interestingly, there is no clear brain marker for ADHD. The diagnosis is very subjective, which frustrates many clinicians.

message 19: by [deleted user] (new)

Quite unconnected with the mention of Oliver Sacks in these comments, my wife and I went on Friday night to see the Rambert Dance Company in Edinburgh. The first piece was titled "Awakenings", as it was inspired by the book by that name published by Oliver Sacks in 1973. I had read it decades ago, and had forgotten most of the details of the story, but the ballet brought it all back (it is fascinating and moving).

The program notes said that the idea for the ballet had come to the composer because of his life long struggle with Tourette's syndrome. The tics (spontaneous, uncontrolled movements, and mannerisms) of Tourette's syndrome are similar to the symptoms that Oliver Sacks' patients had had. And he thanked Oliver Sacks for helping him over the past 20 years.

Standing right in front and to the side of the stage was a deaf man who signed the music. His hand and arm movements, and his facial grimmaces so perfectly captured and expressed the music that it was hardly possible to watch the dancers. It wasn't until the interval when we read the program notes that we learnt that the signer wasn't the composer demonstrating his tics.

The performance passed the "would you see it again tomorrow night?" test, with a "yes, and again, and again" grading!

Apart from the pleasure of the music and dance and signing, we came away with a much richer understanding of what it means for the mind to be embodied.

here is a link to the website with some video clips


BTW. I will soon be travelling for a couple of months, without my laptop, and will be unable to follow discussion while I am away :-)

message 20: by Livia (new)

Livia Blackburne (lkblackburne) | 28 comments Mod
Russ -- good point about the prefrontal cortex

Michael -- I wish I could've seen that dance! I remember how Oliver Sacks described patients with Tourette's syndrome who would lose their creativity after being treated for Tourette's. The link between creativity and mental illness is both fascinating and disturbing. Have a good trip!

message 21: by Robin (new)

Robin Mizell (robin_mizell) John, I haven't read Dan Dennett's CONSCIOUSNESS EXPLAINED, but I noticed someone recommending it today. It might not be scientific enough for your taste. Have you read it?

message 22: by Ruth (new)

Ruth Seeley (ruthseeley) | 2 comments Livia - loving this discussion group, especially since I'm taking a Teaching English as a Second Language Course, working with some students who aren't literate in their first language, which poses some interesting challenges as they attempt to master a second language.

All of it's made me wonder about reading speed in one's second language. Despite having studied French for 12 years and being certified bilingual, I was very frustrated that my reading speed in French was about one quarter that of my English reading speed (and this was with a novel I'd already read twice in English, and I wasn't stopping to look things up).

Can you shed any light on why this is? I'm also interested when scientists tell me they read novels much more slowly than science books (while it's the opposite for me, English major that I am).

message 23: by Livia (new)

Livia Blackburne (lkblackburne) | 28 comments Mod
I'm afraid my answers might be kind of disappointing. For consciousness, it has to do with many things. First, the definition as you mentioned. Also, it's just not really clear how to do experiments about it. You would necessarily need something that is not conscious, but you can still do experiments on, and somehow compare it to something that's conscious. And it's not clear how that would work. But there's some interesting stuff out there. Check out
For intelligence, again what is intelligence. Problem solving ability? Ability to carry on a conversation? Ability to adapt to the environment? Creativity? All of these are slightly different things and require different approaches. As of now, we don't really know how people think, or how neurons transform into a conscious, intelligent being. People often compare neuroscience to the field of genetics before the discovery of DNA. We're still waiting for that breakthrough to understand things. We're just scratching the surface right now, and nobody has really come up with a satisfying theory. At least none that I know of. Sorry I can't give you a more enlightening answer :-)
And my essay is in fact available on Amazon for $.99. Just search for livia blackburne. You can read Amazon Kindle essays on your computer through the Kindle app. We also have epub available at smash words

message 24: by Livia (new)

Livia Blackburne (lkblackburne) | 28 comments Mod
it's true that people have a harder time with the second language, but that disadvantage is much less noticeable when reading. I'm guessing in your case then it might just be a matter of practice. You studied French for 12 years, but how long have you been speaking and reading English?

message 25: by Ruth (new)

Ruth Seeley (ruthseeley) | 2 comments I'd been speaking and reading English for about 19 years at the time. ;) It may just be French - which also runs 1/3 longer than English as those of us who have to arrange translation have learned. :)

message 26: by Livia (new)

Livia Blackburne (lkblackburne) | 28 comments Mod
John -- haha, mostly I eat with my dayjob income. My publisher will probably also raise the price at some point. the 99 cent is a promotion to get it out there.

I may have to check out the Hawkins book...

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