Writing and the Brain I

Because our town has a busy Lighthouse training center, I often see blind persons who are learning how to safely navigate sidewalks, traffic, and intersections. I sometimes wonder what it would be like to lose my sight – would I ever be brave enough to walk around by myself? And I’m equally curious about what it would be like for a blind person to suddenly regain their sight. Would that be a glorious experience – or a confusing one?

In 1993 The New Yorker published an account of a 50-year-old masseur who suddenly – thanks to advancements in surgery – regained his sight after almost a lifetime of blindness. Noted neurologist and author Oliver Sacks described what life was like for “Virgil” both before and after his operation.

It’s a story that’s exhilarating at first and then takes a depressing turn. “Virgil” indeed had his sight restored, but he never was able to see his surroundings the way you and I do. Turns out that “seeing” involves much more than optic sensors and a functioning eye: We need to develop an elaborate brain network that’s capable of interpreting the visual stimuli in front of us. Virgil – blinded as a young child – never had an opportunity to develop that network, and at 50 he was unable to restart the process. He couldn’t judge distances, and he couldn’t make sense of the colors and shapes in front of him. A nose, a hand, a shoulder: how did they fit together? His brain couldn’t figure it out. 

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Postmodern theory can seem abstract and irrelevant to everyday life, but Virgil’s story confirms what the postmoderns keep telling us: We can never have a totally objective encounter with reality. Our brains have to interpret everything we experience.

And that brings us to writing – and all the hand-wringing despair that many students and newbie authors feel when they face a writing task. Because we use language almost every day of our lives, it’s a shock to discover just how hard writing can be. After a long career as a writing instructor, I can testify to the truly awful essays that many first-year college students write – and to the dismay they feel when I mark up and return their work.

Why is writing so hard for so many people? Blame the brain.

Most of the language hardware in the human brain gets organized and developed in early childhood. By the time children go to school, they’ve mastered many elaborate sentence patterns and grammatical constructions.

But then – as they get older – they learn that writing is different from everyday conversation. Good writers need large vocabularies, a knack for organizing ideas in sophisticated ways, and a familiarity with a complicated punctuation system that has little connection to everyday speech…

…unless you happen to be a voracious reader. My next post will discuss some of the differences between everyday conversation and formal writing and – no surprise – I’m going to suggest that reading (rather than learning sentence diagramming and grammatical theory) is one of the best ways to develop better writing skills.

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