Reading v. Learning: A Thought Exercise

Published Categorised as Personal, Essay, Brain Power

Is reading learning? Are the higher cognitive aspects of reading really just learning and concentration? Are my problems only learning issues and not reading ones?

If it’s solely a learning issue, then logically I would have the same kind of issue with any kind of learning. If learning is the issue, then the modality of learning should have no impact on outcome. So let’s compare.

When my physiotherapist teaches me a new exercise, he demonstrates it, may guide my movements, observes my physical motions, and counters any mistakes. I have no problems learning new exercises. Now, you could say muscle memory is not the same as mental memory, that learning a physical movement requires different kinds of cognitions, thus you cannot compare it to reading. Yet, after my brain injury, up until relatively recently, when I walked, it took conscious thought to walk. On the outside, I may have looked like I was walking normally, but on the inside of my head, I was telling myself to keep moving, to move my right leg forward, to continue the forward motion, to move back to the centre of the sidewalk. I had to remember cognitively how to walk so that I could tell myself how to do it. Muscle memory comes after conscious memory. I didn’t realize how much conscious thinking went into the simple physical act of walking until the day I stopped doing it.So yes, I have to learn physical movements cognitively before they become embedded into muscle memory, and I must be able to concentrate in order to learn them.

No problem on either count.

I will say the memory fades after a week or two if I do not do them after I have been taught. But I don’t believe that that fading time is abnormally short.

But okay, let’s assume physical learning is a different beast from mental; let’s compare reading to learning through spoken language. When my neurodoc told me to tell myself “it’s 2014” when I’m having a flashback, I retained that instruction and no matter how many months or weeks or days apart the flashbacks occurred, I recalled that instruction well.

But that’s a simple instruction. I would have retained that if he had written it down for me, no? Hmm. Written instructions I keep in order to read over and over because I do forget them.

Ramryge angels at Gloucester Cathedral, England

Brain injury grief is

extraordinary grief

research proves

needs healing.

What about a complex spoken instruction or question? He asked me a question recently that I had trouble retaining, but that was because I wasn’t paying attention to him at all but to something else. When I pay attention, like when he gives me my reading homework assignments, which I don’t write down, I remember them. I also have no trouble following his reasoning, learning what he wants me to learn.

My concentration is measured as excellent, much better than a normal person of my age and gender, yet paying attention to someone when they’re talking is far easier, especially face to face when I can see their lips move and their body language, than paying attention to text on a page or screen even using all my strategies and devices. That problem is unique to reading ergo it’s not (simply) a concentration and learning issue.

What about flow: do you  need to be in flow to learn? No, but you do need to be in flow to escape into a good novel to the point of losing all awareness of your surroundings and bodily needs like hunger. Reading a good novel is not satisfying unless in flow. I have not missed being able to enter that state of flow when learning these past 15 years, only when reading good books.

What about the big picture? The hardest part for me about my reading assignments is building up the big picture, of adding fact to visual to concept as I read along so that eventually the entirety of the piece reveals itself to me and I’m able to retain it. Trying to keep hold of what I’ve read while adding to them is taxing. But that’s learning! Isn’t it? Or memory? Or some more complicated cognitive process? When my neurodoc goes into his expository mode, I have had trouble listening for that long. and I told him a couple of years ago to keep it short. When he does that now, the biggest trouble I have with it is his vocabulary and the way he uses words.I don’t have trouble building up a picture in my mind of what he’s telling me when I can understand his vocabulary. That is language not learning.

I think it’s a false dichotomy to say the higher cognitive functions of reading are learning and concentration. Yes, learning is involved, but I remain convinced after this adequate thought exercise that my main problem with reading remains – reading.

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