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Is reading really all in our heads?



In our society we tend to view things from a mentalist and cognitive perspective.  This is true of language, literacy and other related skills.  The view of reading and language as learned skill vs. an innate skill goes back to the famous debate between B.F. Skinner and Chomsky.  It was in part this dialogue that started the cognitive revolution which has shaped the common sense views of psychology today.  But over the past 10 years there have been research findings, notably from the relational frame theorists (see, that address many of Chomsky’s criticisms. 

The brain has developed specialized regions to process language, but biology and ‘innateness’ alone is not sufficient to develop language.  We are biologically prepared to learn languages, but we still require environmental contingencies for these to develop.  If it was the case that you lived alone in a jungle and had no contact with another human or verbal species, you would not acquire language or reading skills.  If you live in a place where all your daily survival and pleasure seeking behaviours did not depend on reading, then it is less likely you would be able to read.  The consequence, not access, determines whether any behaviour is acquired.  Access to reading helps maintain the behaviour when acquired. 

In North America we all have access to reading, but it is also continually reinforced.  From ‘day one’ family frequently reinforce language and reading skills through attention and affection.  Educational instruction at all levels reinforces these skills with rewarding social recognition.  And as an adult, can you think of a day that has gone by where you didn’t read something for your job, for social fodder, or entertainment? 

Reading, like everything else we do, is behaviour.  Its ultimate value originates in its ability to help us survive and thrive.  Reading is an encoded extension of our language system.    Both language and reading is adaptive because they allow us to transcend the temporal limitations imposed by classical, operant, and observational conditioning.  The added benefits of encoding language are overcoming the limits of our memory, and reducing error.  But reading does not help us literally survive like eating does, but creates verbal and observational (stimulatory) rules and contingencies that are instrumental in helping us regulate our own behaviour in our environment.  It is my hope that further exploration from a behavioural perspective will help us predict and modify our own reading behaviour for its own sake and to thrive.