Table Of Contents

How Reading and Writing Reshaped Human Consciousness

What I'll Be Covering..

1. The Role of Reading in Shaping Our Minds

For millennia, the quest for knowledge and the development of our mental capacities have been central to human evolution. The hunter, the craftsman, the ascetic—all these archetypes from history highlight a common thread: the need to train the brain to control and focus attention. Indeed this ability to concentrate—to immerse ourselves in a task—has been critical to shaping human evolution and cultural progress over time.

Take, for example, the act of reading books. The intense focus needed, along with the skill of actually understanding and making sense of text, marks a significant turning point in our evolution.

Before writing, human societies heavily relied on spoken language. What people knew and could share was confined to what could be remembered and passed down. As such, language evolved specifically to support the storage and easy exchange of complex information through speech. Laws, records, and other forms of knowledge tended to be formulated in rhythmic and mnemonic verse, often sung or chanted, for effective memorisation and transmission.

“Those who escape hell, however, never talk about it and nothing much bothers them after that.”

Walter Ong, professor of English literature at Saint Louis University, has pioneered much of the research behind this line of thinking. Preliterate peoples, he tells us, enjoyed a deeper emotional and intuitive connection to the world, a kind of “sensuous involvement” that we in literate societies might find hard to understand. However, he points out that in terms of intellectual depth, these oral cultures were pretty limited. To put it in stark terms, the constant need to remember and recite information worked to constrain the complexity of knowledge that could be transmitted.

The eventual shift towards a literate culture marked a significant change. It released knowledge from the limitations of individual memory and allowed language to break free from the rhythmical and formulaic structures needed to support it. Beyond that, however, it opened up new realms of thought and expression, allowing for more complex and expansive intellectual development.

Even the earliest readers recognised the striking changes in consciousness that took place as they immersed themselves in books. The medieval bishop Isaac of Syria describes how, whenever he read to himself: “As though in a dream, I enter into a state where my senses and thoughts are concentrated… Then, as this silence continues, and the turmoil of memories begins to fade, my mind clears and ceaseless waves of thought and vision bring inner delight.”

This article aims to explore how reading did more than just change how we communicate; it reshaped how we think and what we know. Firstly, we’ll delve into the transition from a culture based on the spoken word to involving reading and writing. Secondly, we’ll look at how language and writing have evolved and how being able to read and write have shaped the way we think, communicate, and comprehend the world around us. And finally, we’ll discover why literacy was fundamental not only for science, history, and philosophy; but also for a better grasp of literature, art, and language. 

2. The Birth of Writing

Reading and writing, now so deeply embedded in human culture, might appear as natural abilities. After all, most of us have been literate from a young age. However, unlike speech, the human brain isn’t automatically set up for reading and writing from birth. These skills require us to learn and practice, necessitating a conscious and deliberate effort to shape and train the brain. From this viewpoint, it’s clear that reading and writing are the products of a complex interplay between how our culture has developed, education, and the brain’s innate ability to adapt and learn new things.

The earliest forms of writing dates back to around 8000 BC when people used small clay tokens engraved with simple symbols for tracking livestock and goods. Despite their apparent simplicity, the act of interpreting these rudimentary markings involved a significant evolution in the human brain. People had to develop new neural pathways that connected the visual cortex to areas responsible for understanding and making sense of what they saw. The development of these neural pathways represented a significant leap in cognitive processing, laying the groundwork for the sophisticated task of reading as we know it today.

“Those who escape hell, however, never talk about it and nothing much bothers them after that.”

Around the end of the fourth millennium BC, writing underwent another significant advancement with the emergence of more complex systems like Sumerian cuneiform in Mesopotamia and Egyptian hieroglyphs. These new writing systems, comprising symbols that represented both tangible items and speech sounds, demanded a much more intensive use of brainpower than simple tokens.

Readers had to analyse each character to understand its use in a particular context. This required the development of new neural circuits in the brain, which, as described by developmental psychologist Maryanne Wolf, “literally crisscrossed the cortex,” connecting regions involved in seeing, sense-making, hearing, spatial analysis, and decision-making.

In fact, it goes beyond this, because these writing systems expanded to encompass hundreds of complex characters over time, making remembering and understanding them even harder. As a result, the ability to read and write remained limited to a privileged elite who had the time and mental capacity to master them. It wasn’t until around 750 BC, when the Greeks introduced the first complete phonetic alphabet, that writing became simpler and more accessible to a broader audience.

4. How The Greek Alphabet's Changed Reading & Writing

What is so remarkable about the Greek alphabet is that it completely revolutionised how the brain processes language. Earlier writing systems like cuneiform and hieroglyphs used many complex characters representing both objects and speech sounds. This complexity required the brain to develop intricate neural circuits involving sight, comprehension, hearing, spatial analysis, and decision-making. In contrast, the Greek alphabet’s reduction to basic phonetic sounds and a limited set of characters greatly simplified the task of symbol recognition.

Brain imaging studies indicate significant differences in brain activity between readers of phonetic languages, such as those using the Greek alphabet, and logographic languages, such as like Sumerian cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphs. Specifically, reading phonetic words activates considerably less of the brain compared to interpreting logograms or other pictorial symbols.

Concerningly, most of us don’t appreciate this—we don’t even think about it. But this simplicity in representation made reading and writing much more accessible, which, in turn, marked the beginning of the transition from a culture where knowledge was mostly shared by talking, to one where writing was the main way to express ideas. By making writing and reading less mentally taxing, the Greek alphabet’s streamlined approach to language laid the groundwork for most Western alphabets that came after it, including the Roman alphabet that we still use today (like in this article).

5. The Evolution of Written Language:

And yet, even as the technology of the reading and writing progressed, the influence of the oral tradition persisted in the way words were written and read on pages. It’s hard to comprehend now, but early writers didn’t use spaces between words. They simply wrote down what they heard, a method called scriptura continua. This style of writing, which didn’t focus on word order in sentences, made reading more challenging because it added an “extra cognitive burden” for readers to decipher the words.

As John Saenger explains in “Space between Words,” readers’ eyes had to move slowly and haltingly across lines of text, frequently pausing and often backtracking as their minds struggled to figure out where one word ended, and a new one began, and what role each word played in the meaning of the sentence. This slow, cognitively intensive parsing of text made reading books a laborious task, and it was a reason why the new codices, like the tablets and scrolls that preceded them, were almost always read aloud.

Reading was like working out a puzzle. The brain’s entire cortex, especially the forward areas associated with problem solving and decision making, would have been buzzing with neural activity. Sounding out the syllables would have been key to understanding the text. In a famous passage in his Confessions Saint Augustine, around AD 380, described the surprise he felt when he saw Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, reading silently to himself. “When he read, his eyes scanned the page and his heart explored the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still. Often, we found him silently reading like this; he never read out loud.”

Books quickly became the format of choice for publishing early Bibles and other important works.
Books quickly became the format of choice for publishing early Bibles and other important works.

However, with the collapse of the Roman Empire, the form of written language began to change to meet readers’ evolving needs. As literacy spread and books became more available, there was a greater need for people to read quickly and privately. This change brought about the biggest transformation in writing since the creation of the phonetic alphabet. By the early second millennium, writers began to impose rules of word order on their work, organising words into a predictable, standard syntax. At the same time, scribes, first in Ireland and England and then across Western Europe, began separating sentences into individual words with spaces.

The change to a writing system that was easier to see and understand in the 13th century was really important. By this time, the old way of writing without spaces or punctuation in Latin and other languages was becoming outdated. The use of punctuation marks made reading easier, making writing target the eye as much as the ear for the first time.

“Those who escape hell, however, never talk about it and nothing much bothers them after that.”

This change made a big difference to how we read. Having spaces between words meant people could read faster, more quietly, and understand better. As a result, readers not only became quicker but also more attentive. Being able to read a long book quietly required a heightened capacity for concentration over extended periods. This new kind of reading, what we call “deep reading” now, meant getting really absorbed in a book, losing yourself in it. This ability to deeply engage with written material was a big step forward for people’s thinking skills, letting them grasp and reflect upon more complex and challenging texts.

Authors began to write their works themselves, allowing their compositions to become more personal and adventurous. Working alone in his chambers, Guibert of Nogent, a Benedictine monk, had the confidence to compose unique interpretations scripture, vivid dream descriptions, and even erotic poetry in private – things he wouldn’t have done if he had to use a scribe. When, later in his life, he lost his sight and had to go back to dictation, he complained of having to write “only by voice, without the hand, without the eyes.”

And as authors started writing privately, they also began to revise and edit their works heavily, a practice that dictation had previously hindered. This editing process changed both the form and content of writing. As John Saenger points out, for the first time, writers could see their whole manuscript, helping them link ideas, cut out repeats, and sharpen their points. Consequently, the arguments in books became longer, clearer, more complex, and more challenging. By the late 14th century, books were often divided into paragraphs and chapters, sometimes including contents pages to help readers navigate the more complex structure.

Book reading
As the Middle Ages progressed, the number of literate people & the availability of books expanded.

Nevertheless, handwritten books remained expensive and rare, meaning the intellectual culture fostered by books, and the profound engagement of deep readers, remained confined to a select group of privileged individuals. While the alphabet, as a language medium, had found its perfect match in the book as a writing medium, books themselves had not yet discovered their ideal medium—the technology that would allow them to be produced and distributed cheaply, quickly, and in abundance.

6. The Advent of the Printing Press

In the mid-15th century, Johannes Gutenberg, a German goldsmith, revolutionised the world of printing and publishing with his invention of the movable type printing press. Utilising his metalworking expertise, Gutenberg developed small, adjustable moulds for casting alphabetical letters from a molten metal alloy. This innovation, along with a refined wooden-screw press and oil-based ink that adhered well to the metal type, enabled large editions of perfect copies to be mass-produced quickly by just a few workers.

Francis Bacon, in his 1620 book “Novum Organum”, highlighted the monumental impact of Gutenberg’s press. He said it “changed the face and condition of things all over the world,” ranking it with gunpowder and the compass. Gutenberg’s invention made books cheap and widespread, not rare and costly. For example, in 1483, a printer in Florence charged three florins to print 1,025 copies of Plato’s Dialogues, while a scribe would have charged the same amount for producing a single copy. In the 50 years after Gutenberg’s press, as many books were produced as had been hand-written in Europe in the previous thousand years.

Printers produced not only contemporary works but also large editions of classic texts in both original languages and translations, enriching the depth and historical continuity of the emerging book-focused culture. They printed a range of materials, from serious intellectual works to lighter, more sensational reads.

The widespread availability of varied reading material made deep, thoughtful reading common across different levels of society. But not everyone was part of this change. The poor, those who couldn’t read, and people in remote areas remained largely untouched by these developments. And even with this shift to a more literary culture, many traditional oral practices of sharing information, like talking and public speeches, continued to thrive alongside the written word.

Gutenberg’s mid-15th century printing press didn’t just change printing; it also reshaped the cultural and intellectual landscape of society. As Harvard historian Robert Darnton points out, this led to a new “Republic of Letters”, accessible to anyone able to exercise writing and reading. The world of books, previously limited to the confines of monasteries and university towers, was now open to many more people. As Bacon acknowledged, the world had indeed been transformed.

7. How Writing Shapes Society & Culture

As Elizabeth Eisenstein notes, the skill of these new literary artists in evoking sensory experiences through mere words made readers more aware and observant, changing how they saw things. Like painters and musicians, writers made people more sensitive to the world around them and helped them understand different human experiences better. The words in these books did more than just make people think; they made the physical world feel richer, extending the impact of language and literature far beyond the confines of the book.

Studies on how the brain changes reveal that the neural pathways developed for reading and writing can be used in other ways too. As readers disciplined their minds to follow lines of argument or narrative, they became more thoughtful, reflective, and imaginative. Maryanne Wolf writes, “New ideas came easier to a brain that learned to change itself through reading,” meaning that the complex skills we get from reading and writing add to our overall intelligence.

“Those who escape hell, however, never talk about it and nothing much bothers them after that.”

As Elizabeth Eisenstein notes, the skill of these new literary artists in evoking sensory experiences through mere words made readers more aware and observant, changing how they saw things. Like painters and musicians, writers made people more sensitive to the world around them and helped them understand different human experiences better. The words in these books did more than just make people think; they made the physical world feel richer, extending the impact of language and literature far beyond the confines of the book.

Studies on how the brain changes reveal that the neural pathways developed for reading and writing can be used in other ways too. As readers disciplined their minds to follow lines of argument or narrative, they became more thoughtful, reflective, and imaginative. Maryanne Wolf writes, “New ideas came easier to a brain that learned to change itself through reading,” meaning that the complex skills we get from reading and writing add to our overall intelligence.

Deep reading, as Wallace Stevens put it, became a key part of our thinking. Books were central to this change, helping people understand themselves better, as seen in Wordsworth’s “Prelude” and Emerson’s essays. This approach to reading wasn’t just for what we think of as literature. It also applied to history, like Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” and to the ideas of philosophers like Descartes, Locke, Kant, and Nietzsche. It even influenced the work of scientists.

For example, Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” was a hugely important book in the 19th century. In the 20th century, this way of thinking showed up in works like Einstein’s “Theory of Relativity,” and Keynes’s “General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money.” None of these big ideas would have been possible without the changes in reading, writing, perception, and thought driven by the widespread availability of printed long-form writing.

8. The Emergence Of The Digital World

In the post-Gutenberg era, the dynamic between book readers and writers evolved into a powerful intellectual and artistic partnership. Writers’ words, brimming with new ideas and emotions, ignited the readers’ minds, sparking fresh insights, connections, and perspectives, occasionally leading to epiphanies. This interplay not only spurred writers to explore innovative expressions and delve into complex thought processes but also inspired readers to embrace these intricate pathways of imagination.

Today, we stand at a crossroads similar to the one our forebears faced during the late Middle Ages, transitioning between two technological worlds. For over half a millennium, the printing press has been central to our intellectual life However, the advent of electronic media in the mid-20th century—radio, cinema, television—began to nudge the printing press aside. These new technologies, while influential, didn’t entirely replace books. The cultural mainstream still flowed through printed pages.

Digital technology has radically reshaped the way we absorb information.
Digital technology has radically reshaped the way we absorb information.

Now, we’re witnessing a decisive shift, much like a river changing its course. As computers and the Internet become integral to our daily lives, they are reshaping how we store, process, and share information, including written text. Walter Ong, a renowned language scholar, described this as “technologizing the word.” Once words are digitized, they transform irreversibly. The world we’re navigating now, dominated by screens, is distinctly different from the one ruled by printed pages. We are witnessing the emergence of a new intellectual ethic, adapting to a world where the medium of words has dramatically changed.

“Those who escape hell, however, never talk about it and nothing much bothers them after that.”

Imagine a world where the flow of knowledge, once like a river following its natural course, is now diverted into multiple channels of digital media. The printed book, once the primary stream of knowledge, now finds its course divided, feeding into the vast digital expanse of the Internet. This shift from the tangible experience of reading a book to the dynamic, hyperlinked world of digital text signifies a profound change in our intellectual journey, much like a river forever altered by a change in its course. Find out more in my next article.

9. FAQs

1. What is the main focus of the article?

The article explores the transition from oral traditions to written culture, examining the development of language and writing and their impact on human thought, communication, and comprehension.

2. How did early forms of writing affect brain development?

The first forms of writing, using symbols on clay tokens around 8000 BC, required the development of new neural pathways in the brain that connected the visual cortex to areas responsible for understanding and making sense of what they saw. This marked a significant leap in mental processing and laying the foundation for reading as we know it today.

3. What was the significance of the Greek alphabet in the history of writing?

In essence, the Greek alphabet simplified writing by using phonetic sounds and a limited set of characters, making reading and writing more accessible and less mentally taxing than previous complex writing systems.

This simplification led to a transition from oral to literate culture, enabling the spread of knowledge through writing and fostering more complex thought and expression.

4. What impact did Gutenberg's printing press have on society and culture?

Gutenberg’s printing press in the mid-15th century revolutionised printing, making books cheaper and more widely available, thus dramatically expanding literacy and intellectual culture. 

For example, in 1483, a printer in Florence charged three florins to print 1,025 copies of Plato’s Dialogues, while a scribe would have charged the same amount for producing a single copy. And in the 50 years after Gutenberg’s press, as many books were produced as had been hand-written in Europe in the previous thousand years.

5. How did digital media change the landscape of reading and writing?

The rise of digital media has transformed how we store, process, and share information, leading to a new intellectual ethic and a shift from the tangible experience of reading printed books to the interactive, hyperlinked world of digital text.

6. What is 'deep reading' and why is it important?

‘Deep reading’ refers to an immersive reading experience that involves deep concentration and mental engagement. It is significant for its role in developing our intellectual and creative potential.

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