Use It or Lose It: the intelligence that ‘difficult’ reading develops


My favourite event at the recent Sydney Writers’ Festival was ‘A Radical Rethink’, a discussion between three doctors: Karen Hitchcock, Norman Doidge and Ranjana Srivastaya. ‘Can we change our brains?’ asks the blurb. ‘How can we retain quality of life into old age?’ The discussion soon polarised, Srivastaya playing devil’s advocate and Doidge and Hitchcock, the radicals, challenging mindless assumptions.

In her superb Quarterly Essay 57, Dear Life: On Caring for the Elderly, Hitchcock says (re the threat of the ‘grey tsunami’, a term often applied to baby boomers):

The real tsunami is not one of age per se, but of a population of increasingly poor, obese, diabetic, sedentary young and middle-aged who are the multi-morbid patients of the future and who will require many drugs, doctors, operations […] and hospitalisations (p. 30).

Taken out of context, this sounds as if our challenge is to deal with physical decay. But: ‘About a quarter of Australians over the age of eighty-five now live in care facilities. Dementia is the reason half of them have been institutionalised (p. 54).’

In his essay ‘Why Google is a Political Matter’ (Monthly, June 2015), John Keane says Julian Assange ‘understandably rejects the pre-political flavour of grandiose claims about the end of narrative intelligence.’ Dismissive of charges that Google (the net) is spreading ‘digital dementia’, Assange says ‘there’s something else going on’ and ‘we should pay attention to its novelty’.

Fair enough. Isn’t our collective docility less Google’s doing than its opportunity? If Google is truly making us stupid, TV paved the way, and before it, the information technology TV superseded: radio. Plenty of folk whose TV or radio drones all day will never progress to the mental effort of asking a search engine questions; though, as Assange says, Google is much more than that: ‘a type of private National Security Agency’, because ‘digital automation is inherently coupled with the efficiencies of integrated centralisation and control’. Why wouldn’t intelligent citizens seek to resist mass control? But hey, don’t get me started on history.

Right now, the incidence of dementia (Latin for madness) is on the rise. And so is human longevity everywhere. Hmm… Is dementia inevitable, given enough time? But depression, too, is on the rise, and much of it’s not age-related (try googling age-specific suicide rates). Yet, it can be. For example…

A healthy 93-year-old woman’s memory is deteriorating. She might recall the name of an acquaintance not seen for 70 years at the mere mention of a 21st birthday party, yet forget a phone conversation that occurred just hours earlier – or score 100% on a standard cognitive test, satisfying her GP that she’s free of dementia, while the GP’s receptionist calls a locksmith: the woman has left her house keys at home. A widow, she lives alone; has done for over a decade. Yet all her husband’s effects remain undisturbed – she doesn’t like change. Since his death she’s refused to learn anything new, shuns mobile phones and computers, and suffers depression and anxiety. Her friends and relatives have dwindled and she lacks any urge to seek new friends. Loneliness intensifies her depression, and vice versa. Too much of her social contact is reduced to transactions with relative strangers, purveyors of goods and services, not all of them scrupulous. Fat cheques get written yet receipts elude her.

Dementia, all who hear this story mutter, nodding. Alzheimer’s. Everyone’s an expert, often at firsthand. Power of Attorney, they say. Guardianship. Carer. Nursing home. But where’s the dividing line between forgetfulness and disease? Memories of times in her youth when she felt pleasure fill this woman’s mind before she falls asleep at night. But over the last decade – more, counting the years she nursed her dying spouse – she’s known only loss: the deaths of her contemporaries; failing sight, hearing and strength; the decline of optimism and confidence. Meanwhile, the civilised world has gone digital. The actual social fabric, not just the social contract, has changed.

Younger generations have adapted, as we do, but our society has never been more ageist – an attitude that militates against awareness of history. And the loss of a historical frame of reference promotes ageism. If we can no longer be bothered to flex the muscles of memory, since it’s quicker to access facts and records via Google, why should we value slow-moving folk who could tell us how the world once was? What use are these living fossils if technology can meet all our needs: quickly and cleanly, without scary previews of our own obsolescence?

And the digital revolution is bringing obsolescence in other ways. Take traditional publishing: it’s a dinosaur in our DIY culture. Last month, an aspiring author pushing seventy sent me the link to his blog. I scrolled down it, idly clicking on the rare comments. One post had attracted a record of three, but the first was just spam (from Free Google Adwords, incidentally). What blogger hasn’t seen its ilk? ‘Pretty nice post […] and I’m hoping you write once more very soon.’ Instead of trashing or marking it ‘spam’, though, this naïf had replied. Some wannabes can’t resist a compliment, however robotic – not Google’s fault. But like all parasites, it’s adapted to colonise the gaps: physical or mental space uninhabited by awareness. Could this be humanity’s fatal flaw – our increasing vacancy? Because addiction to entertainment is mainly, if not only, what too much fiction feeds. If the plot is complex enough – say, a convoluted whodunit – it exercises the reader’s brain, not unlike a cryptic crossword. But most popular fantasy and romance infantilises readers, recycling tropes imprinted in childhood.

To dement means to ‘deprive of mind’; to drive one out of one’s mind, to make mindless. Emptied of contents. Discontented. That’s how the madness gets in. Do someone’s thinking for them and they don’t need to think for themselves. Puree their food for thought and they needn’t chew it. Spoon-feed the consumer. Smartphones etc. don’t make us smart any more than Google makes us stupid. The smart folk might be those corporate tools (including many best-selling authors) busy devising thrills and apps that keep the hordes distracted. The more ‘choices’ we believe we have, the more we conform to market logic. In our increasingly atomised society – nuclear families make better consumers – we’ve grown so attached to the notion of our individuality that we can’t see how uniformly predictable we’re becoming as corporate interests use us.

As one of Haruki Murakami’s characters says: ‘If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.’

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1 Response to Use It or Lose It: the intelligence that ‘difficult’ reading develops

  1. …how painfully true you speak…

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