Teachers -- even special ed teachers -- agree that the threshold event when someone learns to read -- usually but not always in the primary grades -- is exciting and gratifying. They can often describe the moment. Some kids learn to do it before they even start school but no one reads before they can talk. It is estimated that maybe ten per cent of human beings do not have the brain gizmos that would allow them to read, but almost everyone can speak. Remembering the sensation of realizing I was reading English for the first time -- looking at the marks on the paper and hearing them in my head -- I tried to read French. But they remained alphabet on the page that I could sound out, but that never became meaning. I did not know anyone who spoke French -- had only heard sentences in movies.
When I read philosophical websites that are mostly occupied by males in their twenties and thirties, usually rather upscale but maybe not, they will insist that the ability to read and write is the definitive characteristic of human beings. Probably none of them have ever taught anyone else to read and have themselves learned to read at an early age. They will claim that it’s not possible to think without words and that consciousness is tightly linked to words.
Contemporary brain research is proving them wrong so they just ignore the work, figuring it will go away and is irrelevant anyway. But it is not and as it unfolds, it becomes more and more meaningful. When I began reading Suzanne Langer in the Eighties, it was brushed aside. Now even Chomsky and Piaget need rethinking. All who depend only on introspection and outward observation are having to reinterpret what they thought was obvious.
Right off for beginners, consciousness -- which in the case of introspection is itself a function of consciousness -- is no longer the key to identity. “I think therefore I am” is no longer true because “I” am so much more than thinking and thinking is so much more than words.
One must realize that “I am a composed cellular creature with a dashboard that is only fractionally conscious and entirely dependent on sensory information gathered from all over the body, even including microbes in my gut.” That is, a person is a vessel of information dependent on instrumentation. Those senses, the instruments, are developed from health, access, and the culture that teaches us one language but not another. The world outside the skin is so much more than can be taken in by the senses that it must be edited, digested, transformed, and symbolized even before it gets to the main dashboard of the brain.
The brain operates on the pattern of the tree -- or maybe we should say “bush” since there is not one main trunk but many branches, mostly developed through gestation, birth and the immediately following years, and dependent on events over which no infant has control. These are mostly provided by caretakers, generally the parents, who try to make sure of nutrition, protection, warmth, and so on, and who also interact with touch and voice to call out the formation of the whole body, but especially the brain.
Only luck in timing and circumstances can give parents the chance to do their best. War, famine, disease, insanity, geo-catastrophe all interfere. Variations in the parents’ and culture’s beliefs will cause variations in the kind of human being that develops through the experience of the growing creature, who forms his or her brain according to what happens -- not simply receiving, but interacting, which with luck will mean demand meets capacity, instinct triggers response, need is supplied, and space for expansion welcomes exploration.
In order to read, one must have already learned to speak, which happens during a “window” in learning ability. It’s sensible to assume that speaking can’t happen without some level of maturity in the air management paraphernalia dependent on the bellows of the lungs. Babies can make vowel sounds early, but consonants depend on delicate management of the interruption of the air stream to make sibilants (“s,z,ch”) and plosives (“k,t,b,p”) with tongue against teeth and palate. Beyond that is the action of the larynx, the push of the diaphragm, the uplift of the ribcage, and mastery of the lilt of the particular language and its gender-indicating inflections. None of this is available to someone looking at marks on a surface.
Between speaking and interpreting silent marks is a sequence of abilities that are probably handled by different parts of the brain. One is the ability to recognize shapes, which some suggest derive from hunting, learning to recognize the ear of the rabbit in grass, the butt configuration of a deer in a confusion of leaves, or the print of a paw in mud. Another is the ability to follow and retain a “trail” of varied marks from left to right, recognizing the line length, maintaining control of which tier of the lines one is looking at, so that the letters stay in words, the words stay in sentences, and the brain follows the stream of them in an orderly fashion.
At first this process is helped by “sounding” the marks out loud, but then one learns to just hear them in the head, and eventually they become transparently silent so that the reader is only conscious of the meanings and even later the meanings become a structure of understanding. Religious performance in litanies may be community-shared out-loud words in unison, which have an emotional impact like that of music, particularly if the words are familiar and have been repeated often enough in history to have become associated with specific occasions, so that they call out the emotions of those times.
If the meaning of the words is too dissonant in terms of their application to the occasion or in terms of the context of the person at the moment, they will be jolted into awareness. This has been happening lately when people recite the Pledge of Allegiance or quote the inscription at the foot of the Statue of Liberty. Sometimes the words of songs are deeply meaningful and sometimes they are offensive. (Perhaps meant to be.) Their meaning can change over the decades or even after some kind of life-rift that reconfigures one’s understanding of the world.
Humans originally came to consciousness in one place, one culture, one family configuration, but now people must be highly flexible as they accept new terms of life. Many cope by narrowing and rigidly limiting their experience to people like themselves, denying that anything outside a “compound” of familiarity is good or even exists at all. But other people let themselves become mirrors, shadows, without a center, merely responding to what is around them. The growth necessary to really understand a whole new terrain can be like trying to read French without ever having heard it spoken -- much less understanding nuances like what is inflected to be male or female, what shows public relationship or marks intimacy.
The problem of translation between two contexts becomes the problem of a double-identity that generates a third, more universal, more experience-based. Those who master this, which can include something like a religious conversion, are different. To those who don’t know anything but their own lives, the difference can be threatening. But, once felt, this threshold experience that invites one through a door into a broader world is the very definition of consciousness and “being human” in a human body.