Books are vehicles of insight

If it seems odd that I would defend print media by using this digital media that you read on a screen, let me explain.

Conceptual Books

We might be reading less print media but we are not reading fewer words says Dr. Maryanne Wolf, director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University. “We are reading more than 100,000 words a day,” she told CBC’s Spark, “but it is fragmented; not the immersive, sustained, deep reading of our past”

According to Marshall McLuhan, “the medium is the message” and internet media are designed to be distracting through the interjection of various animations, popups and social media that create a “cognitive storm,” says Dr. Wolf. Kindle and other book readers are a bit better but not as good as the immersive media of a book.

Media on the internet involve an evolutionary mechanism of “what’s next.” It’s a state of mind that’s useful in scanning our environment for potential dangers and opportunities. In evolutionary terms, it’s useful to know when food becomes available or when a poisonous snake is on the path. But multitasking is not a good mental state for quiet contemplation.

Reading is not something we have evolved to do. We are not born to read, Dr. Wolf told TVO on YouTube. A child will naturally develop other skills like vision and speech but reading is an acquired skill in which mental circuits have to be reassigned from vision and language in order to read. It’s a window that opens to take us beyond what we were originally programmed to do.

Because reading is not innate, it requires effort to develop. Even then, there are complications. As the mother of a dyslexic child, Dr. Wolf is acutely aware that reading development of cannot be taken for granted. Parents have to expose children to books at an early age. By ages five to seven, mental circuits have been sufficiently integrated to develop an automatic system that accesses the deep reading process.

Slow, deep reading requires focus.

“The book is an amazing vehicle for the elicitation of our critical intellectual processes and our own, if you will, vehicle of insight,” Dr. Wolf says. “It’s an amazing invention because the book as we know it is something that we can turn to, and be completely by ourselves, and with nothing else be transported literally, emotionally, socially, intellectually, into the perspective of another.”

Writing is the opposite. In preparing this column I listened to a radio program, watched a video, and read online references. That these words on your screen have any meaning at all is a testimony to the power of the written word. If all goes well, the ideas will unfold as you read.

While these ideas may be thought-provoking, I have no illusions that this column requires deep concentration. The value of short articles such as this is to introduce ideas that can be explored at depth in books (which I don’t read enough of). From my own experience of reading online, I suspect that you are already looking for “what’s next.”



Why drivers text and drive

Fines in B.C. for driving while using phones will double to $368 on June 1. But will it change phone use? Psychology provides some clues.


“At any moment in time,” explains psychology Professor Gerald Wilde, “people assess risks and compare them with the amount they are willing to take,” on CBC Radio’s Spark. While risk factors may change, the amount of risk for any individual remains constant. If the perceived risk goes down, for example, people will engage in more risky behaviour to keep their risk level constant. Professor Wilde calls this “risk homeostasis.”

Risk homeostasis is best demonstrated by a famous experiment called the Munich taxi experiment conducted in the 1980s. A taxi company had to reduce their accidents or pay more for insurance.

So they installed anti-lock braking systems on one-half their fleet. To their surprise, the accident rate didn’t drop. In fact, over the three-year period of the experiment accidents actually increased slightly in the cars with ABS brakes.

It seemed like the drivers in safer cars were taking more risks. To find out, they hired expert observers to monitor driver habits such as speed, lane changes and so on. The drivers didn’t know that their passengers were paid observers and the observers didn’t know which cars had ABS – a classic double-blind experiment.

Sure enough, the observers found that taxi drivers increased risky driving behaviour: they maintained a constant risk.

In frustration, the taxi company decided to try a different approach. They told drivers that they would be financially responsible for damaged cars. Then the number of accidents went down.

Risk homeostasis is not a conscious decision but rather an intuitive calculation involving costs and rewards, including the cost of car repairs due to accidents and fines from traffic violations. Think of the calculation this way, says Prof. Wilde: “You set your thermostat such that there is a balance between comfort and cost of energy.”

Based on this psychology, increased driver fines will reduce distracted driving. But since looking away from the road is pretty drastic, there must be something beyond risk homeostasis.

When air bags were introduced into cars, drivers drove faster as explained by risk homeostasis –safer cars, riskier driving. What doesn’t add up is that the death rate to pedestrians and bicyclists went up. Yet, knowing that, drivers didn’t slow down. It seems like the risk to others was not part of the calculation. If it were, drivers would have slowed down.

Drivers who text and drive do so because it doesn’t appreciably increase their risk. Air bags, ABS brakes, seat belts and impact-absorbent car bodies reduce the risk to drivers but not to vulnerable people outside the car.

Add to that sound-proofing, cruise control, comfortable seats, deluxe sound systems, and drivers are easily lulled into a false sense of the degree of attention required while hurtling down the road in a two-tonne iron shell. Driving becomes secondary to fiddling with the radio, texting on their phones, applying makeup or rummaging through the glovebox.