Thursday, January 17, 2008

The hand shapes the tool; The tool shapes the mind

More evidence is emerging from various fields that shows how using a tool changes the brain of the tool-user. We should consider how tools shape brains, because our tools for writing and reading are going through revolutionary changes now. We are moving from writing and reading nearly everything in paper, to electronic sources. Paper books and magazines require the reader to follow or at least skim and skip through material in serial format. This is analogous to how one had to fast-forward or reverse on a tape or film to locate the segment of interest. Now, electronic formats allow a reader to pinpoint the specific terms of interest and flip among them to find the section of interest.

Already, some writers of born-digital materials are taking advantage of this dip and switch access. Blogs that feature a line or two and allow the reader to “click here to read more...” are an example. Web-zines that feature headlines and an introduction, with links to the full article are another example. And case research on Westlaw and Lexis, or Google searches of the web, are other, perhaps more appropriate examples. Readers can follow links from the middle of a Wikipedia article to other articles or outside sources. The reading experience is no longer a beginning-middle-end, but an endlessly varied branching following each individual’s personal interests. Our reading tools seem to be re-shaping our brains.

Mary Anne Wolf, in Proust and the Squid, shows in detail how reading rewires the brain. Taking various portions of brain real estate originally used for other, sometimes related purposes, the brain dedicates portions for reading tasks such as using pattern recognition that may have been evolved to help recognize leopards to recognize letter shapes. Then the newly re-dedicated portions are hard-wired together, speeding up reading tasks. Neuroscientists and reading experts used MRI equipment to make pictures of the brain as volunteers read. They found that different portions of the brain are recruited for reading the greco-latin letters of western alphabets and the ideograms of Chinese writing.

Science Daily online reported in July, 2007,

The brain's mirror neuron network responds differently depending on whether we are looking at someone who shares our culture, or someone who doesn't.

A thumb's up for "I'm good." The rubbing of a pointed forefinger at another for "shame on you." The infamous and ubiquitous middle finger salute for--well, you know. Such gestures that convey meaning without speech are used and recognized by nearly everyone in our society, but to someone from a foreign country, they may be incomprehensible.

The opposite is true as well. Plop an American in a foreign land and he or she may be clueless to the common gestures of that particular culture. This raises a provocative question--does culture influence the brain?

The answer is yes, ... (snip) In their study, the researchers wanted to investigate the imprint of culture on the so-called mirror neuron network. Mirror neurons fire when an individual performs an action, but they also fire when someone watches another individual perform that same action. Neuroscientists believe this "mirroring" is the neural mechanism by which we can read the minds of other people and empathize with them.

When it comes to the influence of culture, they found that indeed, the mirror neuron network responds differently depending on whether we are looking at someone who shares our culture, or someone who doesn't. (Snip)

Thus, it appears that neural systems supporting memory, empathy and general cognition encodes information differently depending on who's giving the information--a member of one's own cultural/ethnic in-group, or a member of an out-group, and that ethnic in-group membership and a culturally learned motor repertoire more strongly influence the brain's responses to observed actions, specifically actions used in social communication.
We seem to have a confluence from a number of fields of study on the inter-relationships between the brain itself, and cultural as well as physical tools. It makes sense to me that the near-infinite ability of the human mind to re-wire itself for new tasks and to make tools an extension (link to an earlier OOTJ post on topic) of the body, is at work as we move from print to digital. I think we in libraries where we teach research and analysis should be aware of changes -- we need to be changing how and what we teach, in order to better help our students, associates and the legal profession.

The decoration illustrates flintknapping, making stone tools, courtesy of Wild Spirit Traders (Betty & Dave; Dave ~ Flint Knapper; Jewelry, Leather, Deer Bags, and Fur Bags 727-856-7506 email:; posted with a long list of artisans at

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