Reading Alison Gopnik’s The Philosophical Baby, which examines what new research into the way children’s minds work and develop tells us about truth, love and the meaning of life, continues to provoke some thoughts about the nature and importance of reading itself. You can hear Gopnik’s TED Talk which explains much of her thinking by clicking here

Reading is often described as having two major components – decoding or word recognition and comprehension. Indeed this is the basis of the much referenced Simple View of reading.

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Gopnik’s work on the importance of counterfactuals in the development of children’s minds suggests that there is perhaps a third important component which we could call imagination. And could it be that this is the element which is desirable if we are looking to encourage cognitive development in our children? It is my contention that, because reading, particularly of fiction, engages a wider and more complex set of areas of the brain than other activities, it is likely to have a more profound impact on brain development than other cognitive activities. This brain activity is required in order to consider and re-consider the range of counterfactuals that are present in fiction, particularly good children’s writing. The reader is forced, when reading about the adventures of James and his oversized fruit or about gluttonous caterpillars to consider a number of different possibilities, such as what could or should happen to the characters in the past and future. Then, even more imaginatively, the reader may move on to thinking about how his or her own life could or should be different if he or she was in similar situations or experienced similar events. This consideration of counterfactuals, that is central to the reading process, must surely develop and improve this type of thinking, which Gopnik shows is so central to child development.

Gopnik goes on to explain how babies use the knowledge of the world gained from their exploration of counterfactuals to create causal maps to help them to make sense of the complex interrelationships between the entities which make up the world around them. In children who read, much of their knowledge about the world necessarily, due to their limited experience, comes from their comprehension of the books they read. This knowledge is then used by them to explore the counterfactuals they encounter in their own and their reading lives, to conjecture about what might happen to themselves and the heroes and villains they read about in the range of possible imagined futures. It has been claimed that reading develops empathy in the reader and it certainly seems to make sense that the way we learn about this world best, about how it feels to inhabit it, is through reading books which get inside another character’s thinking and, in so doing, change our own.

Maryanne Wolf in Proust and the Squid sees a direct parallel between the generative aspects of reading and the plasticity of the brain. The reader, due to the time-consuming nature of reading, it’s inferential, analytical, probative qualities finds themselves repeatedly asking and sometimes answering questions of the text as they work through it. She sees “the generative capacity of reading” having parallels with “the fundamental plasticity in the circuit wiring of our brains”. For Wolf “reading both reflects and reenacts the brain’s capacity for cognitive breakthroughs”. This is exciting as it highlights the potentialities of the mind to overcome the constraints of evolution through “cognitive breakthroughs” and the importance of reading in helping develop these transformations. My feeling, and as no kind of neuro-scientist, that’s all it is, is that actually the link is even closer than this and that as well as providing the ammunition for these breakthroughs, reading, decoding, comprehension and most importantly imagination, also plays a fundamental role in the development of the cognitive weapon itself.

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