Don’t Think: Read! (A Proposal for an Era Dominated by Opinion)
Reading tempers reason. It shapes ideas and allows us to experience reality under an entirely different sense of time.
The culture in which we find ourselves tends to attach great importance to what we think. What’s been called “having our own ideas” is expressed as that impulse to speak which dominates so much of our time.
It’s no coincidence that the media which emerged from Web 2.0, especially social networks, has triumphed so forcefully. This has given way to, appropriated, and promoted the elevated esteem we give to these personal ideas. It seems we now live with an obligation to have opinions on any subject or event, regardless of its nature or our knowledge of it.
This trend has given rise to unprecedented phenomena in the fields of communication, information, and even knowledge and reflection. As noted in these pages, in Twilight of the Idols, Friedrich Nietzsche advised calm and patience as necessary preconditions for reflection and the elevated culture he sought. “Let things come up to us,” the philosopher wrote, already witness to the frenzy of stimuli which, in the age of the internet, has reached never before seen levels. As regards the simple task of thought, it’s usually a haze in which everything is confused. In other words: although we readily know the difficulties of thinking amidst noise, upon reflection, we often participate in it, we contribute to the maintenance of this noise, and our very opinions are a product of this confusion. In such a context, it’s worth pausing, stopping, and reflecting – and following the advice of Nietzsche – instead of unrestrainedly pursuing ideas, to allow them to reach out to us.
In light of this attitude, we might turn to a resource which, over the years, has yet to lose its validity as both an enrichment for the mind and for the ideas with which we still experience the world. It’s reading. Over the long history of reading, it has acquired a practical form which coalesces vividly with the intellectual approach with which human beings apprehend and understand reality. It’s also the heir to earlier times less concerned with instantaneous reactions and fleeting rewards.
Usually, reading gives us an experience not only of new knowledge or ideas but also of time. That is the difference, for example, between the light, superficial reading with which we experience the internet and reading as it takes place with a physical book. Even with e-readers or similar devices, reading print media incites a specific level of depth that has been demonstrated in scientific studies. It’s been observed that the human brain exerts a different effort when reading a printed book, activating areas related to empathy, analysis, and reflection. This coincidence of cognitive abilities allows the reader to not only codify the meaning of what’s being read, but to gradually build a subjective posture toward it.
It’s a synchronization which occurs almost exclusively while reading because there’s almost no other human activity involving the areas of the brain associated with language, perception, imagination, creativity, abstract thinking, and qualities still more complex than these. In the brain, the angular gyrus, for example, and the so-called Broca’s area, are both necessary for understanding the rhythm and syntax of a phrase, at whatever level of complexity they may bear.
Poetry and fiction are two of the genres which can have the greatest effects on our brain. Poetry, because it’s a complex exercise in which:
1) The figurative and literal senses of words are lived.
2) The reader’s subjectivity intervenes.
3) A subjective experience rises, at the linguistic level, such that it can be understood by any other person.
Poetry is usually identified with emotional reading. It’s no less true, though, to identify it as a highly intellectual exercise. And the brain lives all of this. The posterior cinglulate cortex and the medial temporal lobes, associated with introspection, are activated by reading any particularly emotional poem, but so are other regions related to memory and even those of the right hemisphere linked to musical appreciation.
As to fiction, its effect has been observed especially in relation to empathy, that is, in the ability to identify with and understand other people’s emotions. In other words, fiction generates an emotional bond. The remarkable thing is that this happens even with entirely fictional characters. That with which the brain is operating, that which evolved to understand emotional processes as complex as empathy, is decisive for humanity’s survival. Fictional literature is capable of emulating life, and thus also the possibility of “feeling” emotions which develop within the stories we read. This is the case with the novels of Dostoyevsky and other great writers of the 19th century (Dickens, Tolstoy, Chekhov, etc.).
Beyond scientific studies, even a small test we can do ourselves, allows us to realize that our dispositions – intellectual, corporal, psychic – are different when we have a book in our hands as opposed to when we read on an electronic device. The book, so to speak, invites us to adopt this change and to give it its place, either because reading is a favorite activity, or perhaps because we especially like a given title or author, or simply because we pay books a particular esteem. That’s why it’s common for people to have a designated space for reading (in their own homes, in a public park, in a cafe), and that they do so at certain times of the day.
In an equally eloquent effect, those who’ve entered deeply into reading and are then suddenly interrupted will realize that leaving such captivating pages is a bit like leaving one world to enter another, like waking up from a dream or an hallucination. It’s a return to reality, albeit after having discovered other ways of accessing ideas and knowledge: they’re alternative paths in which distraction becomes digression, and a rush becomes calm, they’re walks by which time itself disappears, and the furthest thing from our minds is the urgency of bearing an opinion.
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