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Reading helps shape the brain, according to Joseph Henrich, Harvard professor of human evolutionary biology.
Development of what he calls mankind’s “collective brain” powered the evolutionary success of our earliest ancestors. Later, the modern world began to take shape when reading became widespread.
Henrich researches how humans evolved from “being a relatively unremarkable primate a few million years ago to the most successful species on the globe,” and how culture shaped our species’ genetic evolution.
In his book, “The Secret of Our Success,” Henrich writes, “Our collective brains operating over generations – not the innate inventive power or creative abilities of individual brains – explain our species’ fancy technologies and massive ecological success.”
Henrich asserts that, because of the cultural evolution of the collective brain, humans were able to design new organizations, institutions and policies. We are adaptive cultural learners who acquire ideas, beliefs, values, norms, motivations and worldviews from others in our communities. Our collective brain strengthens our ability to imagine alternative solutions and work through complex problems.
According to Henrich, humans are status seekers, our preferences and motivations are not fixed and social norms are strong. Innovation depends on the expansion of our collective brains and the ability of social norms, institutions and the psychologies they create to encourage people to freely generate, share and recombine novel ideas, beliefs, insights and practices.
Different societies possess quite different social norms, institutions, languages and technologies and consequently they possess different ways of reasoning, mental heuristics (shortcuts), motivations and emotional reactions.
In his latest book, “The WEIRDest People in the World,” Henrich looks to Europe in the Middle Ages for the seeds of what we now think of as the Western World. He credits the Protestant Reformation for bringing access to the written word to the general population.
His research suggests reading rewired our brains, strengthening our ability to imagine alternative paths, remember details, picture detailed scenes and think through complex problems, and made us more empathetic. In short, reading makes us not just more knowledgeable, but also functionally smarter.
This renovation has left western, educated, industrial, rich and democratic (WEIRD) people with a specialized area in the left ventral occipital temporal region. It also has shifted facial recognition into the right hemisphere, reduced our inclination toward holistic visual processing, increased our verbal memory and thickened the corpus callosum, which connects the left and right hemispheres of the brain.
Some characteristics that make us WEIRD are individualism and personal motivation, which results in self-focus, patience, desire for choices and low conformity. Our impersonal pro-sociability manifests in a linear concept of time and notions of progress, our belief in free will and willingness to cooperate with strangers, as well as impersonal institutions. Perceptual and cognitive abilities and biases lead to analytical problem solving, over-valuation of our own stuff and over-confidence.
These characteristics have worked in our favor so far, but Henrich offers a note of caution: “This process is not linear, and cultural know-how can be lost if the size of the group and their interconnectedness declines.”