Your brain has been altered, neurologically re-wired as you acquired a particular skill. This renovation has left you with a specialized area in your left ventral occipital temporal region, shifted facial recognition into your right hemisphere, reduced your inclination toward holistic visual processing, increased your verbal memory, and thickened your corpus callosum, which is the information highway that connects the left and right hemispheres of your brain.
What accounts for these neurological and psychological changes?
You are likely highly literate. As you learned to read, probably as a child, your brain reorganized itself to better accommodate your efforts, which had both functional and inadvertent consequences for your mind.
So, to account for these changes to your brain—e.g, your thicker corpus callosum and poorer facial recognition—we need to ask when and why did parents, communities, and governments come to see it as necessary for everyone to learn to read. Here, a puzzle about neuroscience and cognition turns into a historical question.
Of course, writing systems are thousands of years old, found in ancient Sumer, China, and Egypt, but in most literate societies only a small fraction of people ever learned to read, rarely more than 10%. So, when did people decide that everyone should learn to read? Maybe it came with the rapid economic growth of the Nineteenth Century? Or, surely, the intelligentsia of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, imbued with reason and rationality, figured it out?
No, it was a religious mutation in the Sixteenth Century. After bubbling up periodically in prior centuries, the belief that every person should read and interpret the Bible for themselves began to rapidly diffuse across Europe with the eruption of the Protestant Reformation, marked in 1517 by Martin Luther’s delivery of his famous ninety-five theses. Protestants came to believe that both boys and girls had to study the Bible for themselves to better know their God. In the wake of the spread of Protestantism, the literacy rates in the newly reforming populations in Britain, Sweden, and the Netherlands surged past more cosmopolitan places like Italy and France. Motivated by eternal salvation, parents and leaders made sure the children learned to read. [Continue reading…]