The Cortical Efficiency of Alphabetic Literacy

11 October 2007 at 5:26 pm 1 comment

As a follow-up to my previous post about “efficient computation,” I wanted to note that I came across the word “efficiency” again in another brain-book titled Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain by Maryanne Wolf. In her brief history of the alphabet, she has occasion to note the “cortical efficiency” or “cognitive efficiency” that results from the use of an alphabet. As she writes,

The cortical efficiency gained from a smaller number of symbols–whether alphabet or syllabary–and the consequent developmental efficiency gained during their acquisition mark one of the great transitions in the history of writing. (64)

Because it’s easier to learn an alphabet of 26 letters (or even a syllabary of 86 characters as in Cherokee) vs. 40,000 characters of Chinese, “children learning more regular alphabets, such as Greek and German, gain fluency and efficiency faster than children learning less regular alphabets, such as English” (64). She makes a point to emphasize that “efficiency is not reserved for alphabet readers alone. . . more than one adaptation can lead to efficiency.” The issue, though, is “whether fluent reading in each type of system is equally achievable by most readers” (61). For this reason, she sees the Greek alphabet as “the beginning democratization of the young reading brain” (66).

When considered in light of Read Montague’s notion of “efficient computation” and energonomics, the learning of alphabetic literacy is a better form of psychic energy management (psychoenergonomics):

The efficient reading brain, which took Sumerian, Akkadian, and Egyptian pupils years to develop, quite literally has more time to think. (54)


Entry filed under: electracy, energonomics, grammatology, neuroscience, psychoenergonomics.

Memory in the Age of Electracy Remembering in Public

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Everetteip  |  24 March 2008 at 10:38 am

    i am gonna show this to my friend, man


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