7 Consequences of Learning to Read

7 Consequences of Learning to Read

In The WEIRDest People in the World Joseph Henrich writes about the mental ability that you are engaged with right now if you are ingesting this information without the help of an auditory tool, reading. “Acquiring this mental ability involves wiring in specialized neurological circuitry in various parts of the brain,” Henrich writes. What that means is that reading changes our brain, and consequentially, it rewires parts of our brains that have historically done different things for us. Here is a quick shorthand of the seven ways that reading changes our brain according to Henrich:
  1. Developed a new specialized area of the brain, the left ventral occipito-temporal region
  2. Thickened the corpus callosum which bridges the hemispheres in your brain
  3. Altered areas of the brain involved in language production and other neurological tasks like speech processing and thinking about what other people are thinking
  4. Improved verbal memory and expanded what parts of your brain are active when processing speech
  5. Moved facial recognition predominantly to a region in the right hemisphere of the brain rather than sharing that ability among both hemispheres
  6. To directly quote Henrich, “Diminished your ability to identify faces, probably because while jury-rigging your left ventral occipito-temporal region, you impinged on an area that usually specializes in facial recognition.”
  7. Shifted your tendency to be more analytical in your processing of visual information so that you consider component pieces rather than the whole to which pieces belong
These brain changes are fascinating, and are the result of something we rarely think about as having the ability to restructure and reshape the brain and how it operates. We have repurposed brain processes and structures so that our eyes can recognize text and so that we can associate that text with language and meaning. It is fascinating that the brain can do this at all, and fascinating to think of the changes that take place across the brain when we do this.
Reading, and the changes it makes in our brains, are weird. Not all humans today have the ability to read, and throughout human history, most humans have had no need for reading. But if you are WEIRD, that is western educated in an industrialized, rich, and democratic country, then you can probably read well. You probably have these rare brain changes that most humans have not had. You think about and perceive the world differently than many humans before you as a result of learning to read. What you understand, spend your time thinking about, and what makes sense to you may not make sense to many of your ancestors, precisely because they couldn’t read and didn’t have the same brain structures performing the same brain processes that you do.
This is the starting point for Henrich’s book and the premise that we are the WEIRDest people to ever live. We are different for many reasons from our ancestors, and much of that difference lies in how our brains operate based on the WEIRD settings in which we find ourselves and WEIRD behaviors we engage in.
Weaponry & Violence

Weaponry & Violence

I think gun control legislation is important and I think there is evidence to suggest that fewer people would die if we restricted and limited access to guns. Bad guys would still get their hands on them, but making that process harder should help prevent some of the mass shootings we see. People could still use cars, axes, and other weapons to go on violent sprees, but if guns were harder to come by it is likely that fewer people would be harmed and killed in any single killing spree.
With that in mind, it is also interesting to consider that as human weaponry has increased in deadly power throughout our history, actual levels of violence have generally declined. Steven Pinker writes about the decline of violence in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature and he specifically considers the implications of the fact that as our weapons have become more deadly we have become more peaceful, not more deadly alongside our weapons. Pinker writes, “over the millennia weapons, just like every technology, got better and better, yet rates of violence have not gone steadily up but rather have lurched up and down the slope of an inclined sawtooth.”
Pinker continues, “weaponry, in other words, appears to be largely endogenous to the historical dynamics that result in large declines in violence. When people are rapacious or terrified, they develop the weapons they need; when cooler heads prevail, the weapons rust in peace.”
Our weapons don’t really make us any more or any less violent. I argue that we should remove the most deadly weapons so that when violence erupts it can inflict fewer people. At this point, we don’t have to make arguments about the level or frequency of violence, we can instead make an argument against the most deadly weapons available when violence does occur. “Evolutionary psychologists tell us that no matter how rich or poor men are, they can always fight over women, status, and dominance.” I would rather that they fight with stones and fists as opposed to automatic rifles.
“Human behavior is goal-directed,” writes Pinker, “not stimulus-driven, and what matters most to the incidence of violence is whether one person wants another one dead.” To reduce violence we should focus the most on institutions and relationships between people. However, that is hard and long work. In the mean time, we should reduce the access to the most deadly weapons so that when violence occurs it is harder and slower to kill someone and less likely to involve the collateral of many people in the process.
Integrative Complexity

Integrative Complexity

We all know the world is a complex place and that one-size-fits-all rules and laws rarely work in practice. We are seeing this right now as some states move to ban all abortions, without consideration of challenging edge cases such as child rapes or the destruction of embryos during the regular course of IVF treatment. Current abortion law highlights a strange phenomena that has been building in the United States recently. Our appetite for integrative complexity in political spheres seems to be diminishing.
In The Better Angels of Our Nature Steven Pinker writes, “a passage that is low in integrative complexity stakes out an opinion and relentlessly hammers it home, without nuance or qualification. Its minimal complexity can be quantified by counting words like absolutely, always, certainly, definitively, entirely, forever, indisputable, irrefutable, undoubtedly, and unquestionably.” What current political movements, like the election of Donald Trump and the passage of anti-abortion legislation demonstrates is a desire to reduce integrative complexity in political systems.
My suspicion is that this partially stems from the fact that the world is becoming more complex and hard to navigate. We are coming to rely more and more on technology as our world becomes more and more globalized. We are living in a world where the price of tea in China really could have a major impact on the cost of our mortgage and car payments here in Reno, NV. Young people today seem much more likely to be competing with people from India for future jobs, especially in tech industries. Quickly adopting technology, like virtual reality, may be essential for the future. And voting for local politicians seems to be distressingly closely tied to national political movements, another change from the past that highlights the complexity of the current world.
I think that it can be tempting for people to respond to all this globalized complexity by simplifying their views and opinions and demanding (beyond simply wishing for) simple solutions. A large segment of the population loved the fact that Donald Trump was willing to say simple things like, “immigrants are murderers,” “climate change is a Chinese hoax,” or “Democrats are bad.” Trump’s integrative complexity was astonishingly low for a president and is in line with legislation that bans all abortions outright, without compromise or negotiation for outliers.
Integrative complexity, or more precisely our lack of concern for integrative complexity on large issues, should be concerning for us. In his book Pinker also writes, “integrative complexity is related to violence. People whose language is less integratively complex, on average, are more likely to react to frustration with violence and are more likely to go to war in war games.”
This suggests that integrative complexity is a reflection of inner considerations of other people’s perspectives and self-control. The argument is that people whose language are more integratively complex are less impulsive, more willing to think through challenging situations and consider compromise alternatives, and more willing to adopt other people’s perspectives – at least temporarily. This is important in living in a complex society. We need to recognize that people have different opinions, experiences, needs, and desires. We cannot force everyone into a single box, and we cannot respond impulsively with violence against things we dislike. Current movements that embrace integrative simplicity should concern us, and we should strive to elect leaders and support national policy that adequately address issues with an adequate level of integrative complexity.
The Flynn Effect & Expanded Perspectives

The Flynn Effect & Expanded Perspectives

The Flynn Effect is the phenomenon of people improving on IQ tests over time. There has been a steady improvement in performance on IQ tests throughout human history, suggesting that people are getting smarter over time.
In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker argues that this is also making us less violent as a species. Pinker writes, “The cognitive skill that is most enhanced in the Flynn Effect, abstraction from the concrete particulars of immediate experience, is precisely the skill that must be exercised to take the perspectives of others and expand the circle of moral consideration.”
Pinker’s argument is that humans are more pacifistic when they can view the world through other people’s lenses. When we are able to adopt perspectives beyond our own, when we can recognize that people think differently and have different experiences regarding the world, we can view them and their behaviors with more nuance. We are less likely to view people who don’t speak our language or share our customs as barbarians and savages. We are more capable of viewing people as victims of circumstance rather than as degenerates and moral failures. Taking the perspectives of others expands our moral considerations.
But perspective taking is hard. You have to put your own thoughts, feelings, and desires aside and consider what another person may want or feel. It requires abstract reasoning and an expanded understanding of the world. It requires a recognition that you cannot know everything, because you cannot fully take on the specific experiences of another person. You have to step into the unknown and make predictions about complex mental states. Increased intelligence, according to Pinker, helps this process. A result of increasing intelligence is that we can better view the world through other people’s perspectives, and consequentially we have a greater moral consideration of what is good, bad, fair, and unfair. This reduces our violent tendencies by allowing us to think more carefully about our actions and behaviors toward others.

Revisionist Histories and How We Remember Ourselves

“The declines of patriotism, tribalism, and trust in hierarchies are in part a legacy of the new historiography,” writes Steven Pinker in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature. Across the globe more accurate histories of the universe, of mankind, and of specific regions has made it clear that many belief systems are little more than myth. Stories of great heroes and gods are little more than exaggerated myths and glorified exaggerations of individual grandeur and tribal greatness. At worse, such stories are apologetic narratives explaining the domination of humans over nature, animals, and other humans. As better history uncovers these stories for what they are, societies and relationships within those societies change in ways that can create a lot of conflict.
Pinker writes, [UCSB Anthropologist Donald] Brown looked at twenty-five civilizations in Asia and Europe and found that the ones that were stratified into hereditary classes favored myth, legend, and hagiography and discouraged history, social science, natural science, biography, realistic portraiture, and uniform education.” This quote demonstrates that societies with distinct inequalities are fearful of accurate histories. They use myth, legend, and heroic figures to justify the stratifications and inequalities within their society. At some level, their objection to science and education demonstrates a recognition that their social inequalities are not based on merit or anything other than historical privilege, stigma, and discrimination.
I find this a helpful frame for understanding modern American political divisions. In general, the Republican party in the United States is whiter and more religious than the Democrat party. White Christians have held dominant social status positions and have been more wealthy than other groups in society. Part of that dominance included slavery and Jim Crow laws which deliberately limited the prosperity and success of minorities. More accurate histories of the United States, revisionist histories that emphasize the role of racial and class discrimination for example, threaten the current status quo that has resulted in our country. It is not surprising that the Republican Party is more threatened by secular education, more resistant to science, and less tolerant of school curriculum that takes a critical examination of the history of racism and slavery in the country. Republicans also seem more willing to view our founding fathers as quasi saints, heroes who could do no wrong and should always be respected and viewed in a near worshipful manner. Pure self-interest and a desire to ignore the inconvenient truths that accurate historical narratives and science reveal fuel the current political zeal within the Republican party for many of its members and adherents. This is not just something that we currently see in the United States, but something that can be observed across time and place in human societies.
Liberal Moral Concerns Relative to Conservative Moral Concerns

Liberal Moral Concerns Relative to Conservative Moral Concerns

Social liberals in the United States and social conservatives have very different values. In terms of political views, they are not really that far from each other. However, in terms of what they would like to see reflected in our culture and how they think about people generally, social liberals and social conservatives are very different. The result, as I understand it, is a lot of anger at people who share different values and instances of iconoclasms that spill over into political realms beyond our social and cultural worlds.
In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature Steven Pinker wrote about the values differences between social liberals and social conservatives. This quote comes from his book which was published in 2011 and still holds true today. “In judging the importance of moral concerns,” Pinker writes, “recall, social liberals place little weight on In-group Loyalty and Purity/Sanctity …, and they place little weight on Authority/Respect. Instead they invest all their moral concern in Harm/Care and Fairness/Reciprocity. Social conservatives spread their moral portfolio over all five. The trend toward social liberalism, then, is a trend away from communal and authoritarian values and toward values based on equality, fairness, autonomy, and legally enforced rights.”
Examining social liberals and social conservatives through this lens is helpful for understanding current political arguments. The landmark supreme court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade is a great tool for examining the moral concerns that each group holds (and is also an example of political iconoclasm from social conservatives).
First, social liberals are not worried about Purity/Sanctity, which means they are not worried about whether a woman is a virgin before marriage. This means they are more likely to think about risky sexual behavior or teenage sexual activity and respond with programs and incentives that increase education and access to birth control relative to social conservatives. Social conservatives who are more likely to be religious conservatives (and in the United States that means Christians who believe that pre-marital sex is a sin), are more likely to believe in an all out taboo against pre-marital sex. Such sex destroys the sanctity of marriage and the purity of the woman in such views. The reaction against legal abortions is a reaction against sexual promiscuity and against behaviors that do not adhere to conservative moral values around purity and sanctity, moral values that social liberals generally don’t care about.
The second dimension of the overturning of Roe v. Wade has to do with Authority/Respect. Social liberals are more likely to question authorities who tell them to behave and act in certain ways. This means they are less likely to listen to leadership figures who tell them not to engage in pre-marital sex or higher risk sex behaviors such as having multiple partners. They are more likely to favor increased personal decision making capabilities and as a result are more likely to favor legal access to abortions. Social conservatives are more likely to value authority and respect as general principals and and are more likely to view strong figureheads and leaders positively (there is a reason why Donald Trump’s authoritarian tendencies were more accepted among the Republican party than the Democrat party). When religious leaders put taboos in place around women’s bodies and sexual behavior social conservatives are more likely to respect and adhere to those taboos.
Finally, In-Group Loyalty pushes social conservatives to adhere to the values of their religious groups and the political orientations of those around them. When support for a movement against abortions grows, social conservatives will find it hard to go against the movement, especially when they see their identity as tied to the movement or a group supporting the movement. It is not impossible for social liberals to feel the same on any of these scales, but they tend to display less strong ties to values within these areas.
Ultimately, the reality of our social and political system today is that we have very different values between social liberals and social conservatives. The battles over these values play out in our entertainment choices, in our political systems, and in all of our various social interactions. Better understanding where are values align and where they diverge can help us better understand the fights we see in our current social world.
The Potential & Danger of Taboos

The Potential & Danger of Taboos

In the United States, there are many things that have been taboo throughout our country’s history. Today, saying that something is retarded is taboo, a positive development to reduce the stigma around cognitive disabilities by preventing people from using the word as an insult. However, in our not too distant past interracial marriages were taboo. Black men could be jailed and worse for entering into a consenting relationship with a white woman. Maintaining social order with taboos can push us in positive directions, but it can also push us in very negative directions. Steven Pinker writes about this in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature,
“The mentality of taboo, like the mentality of morality of which it is part, also can pull in either direction. It can turn religious or sexual nonconformity into an outrage that calls for ghastly punishment, but it can also prevent the mind from sliding into dangerous territory such as wars of conquest, the use of chemical and nuclear weapons, dehumanizing racial stereotypes, casual allusions to rape, and the taking of identifiable human lives.”
It is hard, even in a world where our digital footprint leaves a trail of everything we do, to police everyone all the time. It is hard to create rules that everyone can follow and obey to help society reach desired outcomes. Taboos are not set in stone and can’t be controlled the way laws can, but they generally do a better job of shaping behavior and desired outcomes than our laws. They don’t require constant policing, but instead rely on feedback that individuals receive when they step close to a taboo or cross the line.
The problem is that taboos can arise and disappear without us fully understanding where they came from and why they disappeared. A law is clearly visible and its destruction or elimination marks a clear turning point. Taboos are harder to control and shape. This is an important thing for us to think about and consider as we engage in society. Do we want to accept politicians who make fun of people with disabilities, even if they are our preferred candidate, or do we want to “cancel” them because they have violated a taboo? Do we want to allow violence in some cases but not others, or do we want to enforce an all-out taboo against violence? These are real questions we face today. Framing them in terms of absolute taboos may or may not be appropriate, but it does change the parameters of the debates and decisions. Taboos have great potential, but also great danger.
Perspectives, Chaotic Lives, and Policy

Perspectives, Chaotic Lives, and Policy

One of the things I try to remember is that my experiences and perspectives are limited. What makes sense to me, what seems reasonable and rational to me, is all based on my background and the opportunities I have had. I haven’t experienced the same lives of others so I cannot always fully understand their perspectives.
I think this is incredibly important to keep in mind when we think about poverty in the United States. From a middle or upper income perspective, poverty can be incredibly misunderstood. Those misunderstandings in turn shape attitudes, opinions, and policies regarding poverty and those living in extreme poverty. We lack the perspective to understand just what it is like for people who are the worst off and therefore fail to approach them in appropriate ways and fail to produce policies that will actually help improve their state of being.
For example, we often criticize people in poverty for being lazy and undisciplined. If only people in poverty would work hard and save money, they could get to a better place and not be stuck in poverty anymore. There is no policy that we should introduce to help them if they are not willing to help themselves first. This is a standard mindset and thought process related to those in poverty. And it also fails to take into consideration what life in extreme poverty is really like.
One thing I think we should consider is how chaotic and unpredictable a life in poverty can be. When people find themselves in a state of homelessness, it can be incredibly challenging to find any stability from which to begin approaching life in the way that a middle or upper income person would be able to. As Steven Pinker writes in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, “it doesn’t pay to save for tomorrow if tomorrow will never come, or if your world is so chaotic that you have no confidence you would get your savings back.”
If you don’t know for sure that the work you managed to find for today will be there tomorrow, then it is hard to plan ahead at all. And if you can’t plan ahead and count on some stability in terms of housing, in terms of maintaining possessions, and in terms of work, then you can’t begin to save money or resources in any meaningful way and you can’t demonstrate what others would consider wise self-discipline. At the very bottom, life is chaotic and that chaos makes it impossible to do the things that middle and upper income people require of you before they are willing to help you.
Perspectives and understandings matter. The people who make policies and vote for people who shape policies often lack the correct perspectives to understand something as complex as what Pinker’s quote gets at. We look at those in poverty and make assumptions about their laziness and lack of self-discipline, never realizing that sometimes it doesn’t pay to save or be self-disciplined and that an incredibly chaotic life makes even basic activity feel impossible. We then vote for politicians who also misunderstand the very poor, and consequentially we introduce policies that do little to help life be less chaotic for those in extreme poverty.
Empathy & Effective Altruism

Empathy and Effective Altruism

While I haven’t kept up donations recently, I used to donate to the Against Malaria Foundation on a monthly basis. I chose to donate to AMF because the charity was identified by GiveWell as one of the most effective charities in terms of lives saved per dollar donated. GiveWell is an engine for Effective Altruism, the movement which believes we should be doing the most good with our financial resources, especially when we are thinking about charitable donations. We could make donations to charities that sound like they are doing really important work and charities which give us a nice warm and fuzzy feeling on the inside, but those charities are not always super effective, and a lot of our money may not be going directly toward the thing the charity is built around. Some charities spend large amounts of the money they receive on executive pay or marketing, meaning that a large percentage of every dollar you donate, possibly a majority, doesn’t go toward the mission of the charity.
And this is where empathy can get in the way of our efforts to do good. A charity I often point at as an ineffective charity is the Make-A-Wish foundation. Many authors have written about great wishes that have been granted that have shut down city streets to enable young children with terminal illnesses to play super-hero for a day. These wishes are expensive, but they make a sick child smile, they show the world something positive, and they make us feel good. Unfortunately, the money spent on a wish for a child in the United States may not be as effective as money spent on something less exciting, like providing bed nets to children in Africa to help prevent malaria. We might not get a warm glow from helping some child thousands of miles away from us, especially not compared to granting a wish which will be filmed and choreographed to music, but the difference we can make in the life of the child thousands of miles away can be a dollar for dollar better investment for the future than the wish.
But my argument, and the argument of effective altruism, is not just an argument of effectiveness and a return on investment for charitable donations. It is also argument for fairness over empathy. We have limited resources. There is only so much charitable donation capacity for all of us. Making donations with an Effective Altruism mindset isn’t just more effective, it can also be more fair. As Steven Pinker writes in The Better Angels of Our Nature, “empathy can subvert human well-being when it runs afoul of a more fundamental principle, fairness.”
Charities that rely on empathy can do great things for the people who are the recipients of our altruism. But they can also divert resources from those who truly need it, can unfairly jump people ahead of the line for medical care, and can prioritize charity for people who look like us or who look like our preferred recipient of charity. In the long run, this can contribute to inequality as we prioritize charity for certain racial or ethnic groups, certain countries, and certain medical conditions. We make donations to children in the United States to help them be happy for a day, we prioritize treatment of cancer over treatment of tropical diseases, we underfund foreign aid. Pinker continues,
“Not only does this nepotism sap the competence of police, government, and business, but it sets up a zero-sum competition for the necessities of life among clans and ethnic groups, which can quickly turn violent. The institutions of modernity depend on carrying out abstract fiduciary duties that cut across bonds of empathy.”
If we only make donations when our empathy is piqued, then we will constantly short better charitable targets. We will not distribute charitable dollars in an equitable or effective manner. We will be paternalistic in our donations and our outcomes will be biased. What we need are more institutions that make donations in a more effective and more equal manner. We should think more about cash transfers and giving money directly to people without needing to feel a warm glow and without needing our empathy to be piqued. Doing so will have better societal and global outcomes than making donations based on empathy. Pinker concludes, “the ultimate goal should be policies and norms that become second nature and render empathy unnecessary. Empathy, like love, is in fact not all you need.”
Empathy is Not Enough

Empathy is Not Enough

In our world today we are dealing with a lot of tragedies and negativity. Our political parties are polarized and don’t seem to be willing to cooperate. This last weekend there was a mass shooting at 4th of July parade. Women face incredibly awful sexist comments online. As a response to the negativity, many people are calling for increased empathy in the world. The idea is that we need to work together to be more empathetic, more aligned and aware of each other, and to care for each other’s emotions to a greater level than we currently do.
However, as always for me, I would argue that trying to develop more empathy is not enough. I think we need to develop better institutions that bring about the kinds of changes that we want to see in a more empathetic world. Steven Pinker, based on what he wrote in The Better Angels of Our Nature would likely agree:
“The overall picture that has emerged from the study of the compassionate brain is that there is no empathy center with empathy neurons, but complex patterns of activation and modulation that depend on perceivers interpretation of the traits of another person and the nature of their relationship with the person.”
Pinker explains that singular people going out and trying to be good people, trying to display empathy, and trying to make the world a better place by being empathetic is not likely to change the state of empathy in the world and bring about the subsequent changes we would like to see. Trying to be empathetic with a woman who has been criticized online could backfire if you are not seen as part of the right group, a major challenge in our politically polarized society. Gun violence may not be reduced, and may not be reduced quick enough, if we try to build empathy at an individual level. What needs to change are incentive structures and relationships between people.
Similarly to how Pinker writes about empathy, he writes the following about sympathy, “sympathy is endogenous, and an effect rather than a cause of how people relate to one another. Depending on how beholders conceive of a relationship, their response to another person’s pain may be empathic, neutral, or even counter productive.”
At this point, I believe we need new institutions that will reduce access to guns and create new taboos around guns. I would support a constitutional amendment banning guns or even a program that tried to purchase guns from people (especially for people with suicidal backgrounds – however these programs are often not effective). I would also push for reduced anonymity for online social media companies, hopefully bringing more visibility to awful sexist comments. Other institutions, like changes to our voting system could help address the political polarization and possibly have other positive effects down the road. Institutions can shape behavior much stronger and much more quickly than individual kindness and acts of empathy. To get beyond our current world of tragedies and negativity, I think it is time we start experimenting with new institutions.