The Quiet Eye

This post is about the importance of how we read as well as what we read, to build our lives and our society.

Reading on-line vs. hard copy; reading literature, not just short factual or opinion pieces:

Maryanne Wolf (Reader, Come Home: the Reading Brain in a Digital World) suggests that reading with a “quiet eye,” as illustrated in the following quotes, is the proper way to read literature (as different from STEM).

              Some common truths he can impart,
            In common things that round us lie

              –the harvest of a quiet eye.

                                          ———— William Wordsworth

As the devotion of a life, the way of words, of knowing and loving words, is a way to the essence of things, and to the essence of knowing, too….What is required for a loving that is knowing, for a knowing that is loving, is the quiet eye.

———John S. Dunne

She posits that reading novels and stories is good for us because it trains us to empathize and recognize  differences among people.  It draws us into the story.  Reading on hard copy is better than on line because the eye is likelier to see the whole context there, and is less likely to be interrupted.  People typically read a page of lines in the F-shape on-line, looking for catchwords that convey information rather than argument, nuance, connotation, and meaning.

But we have read other ideas* about how to read:  we should use external sources such as being aware of our surroundings and engaging people in personal discussions, to expand the mind, and use physical activity to help think. It has been suggested that physically broadening the sources one reads, e.g., reading a newspaper in print format rather than in column as on a phone, makes the mind work better.

Of course Dr. Wolf is wary of continuously receiving new information in short spurts – the primary problem with on-line reading.

I very much want to be able to approach a task with a quiet eye.  It implies that the time immediately prior has been a calm one, and that there is not much from the outside world that has impinged yet (which is why I like to read and write early in the morning, usually without having read or heard much news).  But is it not good to also gather facts and information from whatever source quietly or otherwise?  Must one not do this in order to truly understand what is going on so for the sake of consent or dissent, to be aware of helpful possibilities and destructive ones as well, to protect against danger, catch onto good fortune, protect one’s family and community?  Of course there is.  It is not good to try to look at life exclusively through the quiet eye.

Yet there is an enormous appeal to it.  It suggests being able to shed the worries of the day and the pressures of ever-present new material and news, to take a deep breath, and to prepare to dive into this particular piece of writing, intending to read every page and word carefully.  First You Write a Sentence, by Joe Moran, cited in earlier posts, encourages the writer to construct every sentence carefully, choosing each word and its place in the sentence with great care, then slowly building paragraphs and whole essays.  This is what I keep in mind while writing. I’m sure that this discipline has shortened most sentences, used more verbs than nouns, and forced me to be quite clear in my own mind about what I really want to convey in that sentence – the information, the opinion, the precision or vagueness of the words, and the possible ways of interpreting what I have written (one thinks of that old political adage “it doesn’t matter what you said; what matters is what they heard you say”): do I want to convey explicit, tightly defined meaning or leave room for the reader to wander and consider not only what I might intend to say, but also what else could be deduced from what I wrote.

When I was still preaching, the norm was a twenty-minute sermon. People would sometimes tell me during coffee hour that there was to much in a sermon; that they couldn’t always stay with it –their minds would wander off to contemplate some point which interested them, and they would come back later, having missed some of the content.  I replied that this was OK and was intentional – the purpose of the sermon was not sod much to instruct, but to engage the person wherever they might be, and to give them room to contemplate the possible various meanings of Scripture, looking for what might make sense, or be helpful, in their lives.  If they wanted to catch up with what else was in a sermon, they could hear a recording of it provided by the church.  There was a woman in her late twenties who felt my sermons were too long:  she said that if I couldn’t get my point across in ten minutes or less, she wasn’t interested in spending the additional time.  I tried to explain that I wasn’t just “making a point,” but I don’t think she agreed that I shouldn’t.

Dr. Wolf wants the reader to respond exactly as ­­­­­­­­­­­­­she hopes that a writer desires.  What a compliment and complement to the writer’s work would this treatment be!  One fairly aches for such a response.

The posts in this blog have sought to encourage the reader to think for themselves and to develop enough knowledge to be confident of an informed consent or dissent.  They encourage people to not be persuaded by social media, the crowd, the specific group, and so on which, apparently, take over thinking for many people, including some politicians.

There are natural inheritances which can get in the way of the quiet eye:

There are evolutionary circumstances which influence us.  In The Goodness Paradox: The Strange Relationship Between Virtue and Violence in Human Evolution, Reichard Wrangham posits that an evolutionary predisposition toward proactive aggression makes humans less violent among their own, but more reactive outside their own.  He compares us with bonobos’ slow, proactive aggression, and chimpanzees’ more reactive aggression.  He claims that bonobos domesticated themselves (his term), i.e., developed slow aggression, as their way to build society.  With this he compares human male dominance in public sphere but not necessarily in private sphere where women may dominate.  That is to say, humans have evolved to have both the reactive (quick) and pro-active (slow) aggression. We domesticated ourselves using language to cooperate and organize our society, in place of reactive aggression among our own.  For example the males can organize against the alpha male and mitigate his authority and power without violence.  But we imitate chimpanzees in our use of fast, reactive aggression outside our own family or society.

In considering these two books, I have come to think that the extreme anger which can be evoked by social media and by actions which divide us into groups, encourages and enhances our reactive aggression. Whereas reading with a quiet eye (and perhaps listening with a quiet ear) provide us with not only language to develop responses to our surroundings, but also the time, context, empathy, and ability to think sufficiently for ourselves, perhaps by ourselves or in cooperation with others, to control our aggression not only among ourselves but outside our groups.

The key, then, is to get away from constant noise, and choose our company carefully to include people of like and of different minds.  Being able to carry on conversations with such a group, and reading on my own but also reading recommended material, helps me to keep that quiet eye.  By contrast, it is my impression that those who continuously listen to talk radio, stay plugged into Twitter and other media, often but not always get caught up in the emotions expressed by those media, and need time and a different environment to separate themselves out from the noise. 

Many people simply do not have the time away from the normal pace of their days, to get away by themselves or be with particular company.  It may be impossible for them to develop a quiet eye at their current stage of life.  But I hope that there will come a time for them to do so.  And that in the meantime they may be influenced by quiet-eyed people around them and people around those people.  If they haven’t the time to think for themselves as much as they would like, perhaps they can benefit from the examples and opinions of some around them.

This is a great deal of work.  Isn’t there a way to be normal, i.e., not so deliberate all the time, and still get along well?

Gabor Matés The Myth of Normal:  Trauma, Illness, and Healing in a Toxic Culture, is a major work on the limits in controlling our emotions and actions.  His concern is that “small-t” trauma, which can be anything that issues from lack of healthy connectivity in our early years, and assault on our souls and/or bodies in later years, damages not only us but our progeny.  I will show what he means by quoting some of his quotations:

Quoting Bessel van der Kolk “Trauma is when we are not seen and known.”

Quoting educator Alfie Kohn regarding human nature:  “The characteristics we explain away in this fashion [“its just human nature”] are almost always unsavory; an act of generosity is rarely dismissed on the grounds.”

Anthropologist Marshall Sahlins:  “For the greater part of humanity, self-interest as we know it is unnatural…it is considered madness….Rather than expressing human nature, such avarice is taken for a loss of humanity.”

Robert Sapolsky, biologist and neurologist at Stanford:  “The nature of our nature is not to be particularly constrained by our nature.

Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child:  “The architecture of the brain is constructed through an ongoing process that begins before birth, continues into adulthood, and establishes either a sturdy or fragile foundation for all the health, learning, and behavior that follow.”

Maté’s own comments:  “The interaction of genes and experiences literally shapes the circuitry of the developing brain and is critically influenced by the mutual responsiveness of the adult-child relationships,  particularly in the early childhood years.”

Among the factors affecting our development are “…the intolerable pressures contemporary society places on the rearing milieu, the family, and on the developing young and, as epigenetics teaches us, on the very activation of DNA itself.

“…our character and personalities reflect the needs of the milieu in which we develop.  The roles we are assigned or denied, how we fit into society or are excluded from it, and what the culture induces us to believe about ourselves, determine much about the health we enjoy or the diseases that plague us.”

Regarding the damage caused with and by homelessness, extreme income inequality, and addictions:  “Something in us normalizes …calamities whether the result is that we actively enable them, deny them, or merely look on in passive resignation.”

“A society that breeds these conditions [uncertainty, conflict, clack of control, and lack of information] as capitalism inevitably does, is a superpowered generator of stressors that tax human health.”

You can see from just these few quotations how much there is to consider in his book.  A commentary would be much too long for a blog post, so I leave it to you to read his book and think it through yourself.  Apparently “normal” is not a helpful value, so no, there is not a way to get along well without a great deal of work.

Maté maintains that we need a sense of belonging and a sense of autonomy.  Our society encourages the latter over the former.  All this harkens back to my previous post “Freedom from Want, Freedom from Fear:  In the Beginning.”  Reading this leaves me wondering whether it is possible to have a quiet eye.

We need to know history in order to think well:

Related to all these considerations are our knowledge of history, and how we go about reading to build our lives.

Maryanne Wolf’s Reader, Come Home:  the Reading Brain in a Digital World, posits that there are real dangers to our ability to think if we abandon deeply reading fiction and non-fiction in hard-copy to reading digitally (although there are advantages to balancing the two).  She describes in great detail what happens in the brain when we read, and asserts that humans have developed a new and unique “reading circuit.”   It is the result of “plasticity within limits,” rather than hardwiring, that is, it is a continual adaptation by the brain.  By comparison, oral language is one of our most basic functions, and involves actual genes. So, for example, the Chinese-character reading brain has similarities to but also differences from, the letter/word reading brain.  Cells form working groups which become adapt at communicating with other groups across vast regions of the brain, linking, for example, vision and language areas of the brain.  This is done very quickly, and involves all regions of the brain:  both hemispheres, all four lobes, and all five layers.

Deep reading enables empathy, and immersion in others’ stories.  Without this, our day-to-day encounters may leave us disconnected, and therefore without adequate awareness of others and their needs, rights, and relationships that we ought to have with them.  Wolf worries that, because e-reading skims in the shape of an F, grasping some words but not the whole sentence or paragraphs, we miss the context. What, she wonders, will happen to young people who grow up unaccustomed to understanding people different from themselves?  She alludes to work by Sherry Turkle at MIT which found a 40% decline in empathy among young people (in America, I suspect) over the past twenty years, with a faster decline in the past ten. (I don’t know how one measures empathy, but the scholar is renowned.)  She also cites German neuroscientist Tania Singer’s analysis of the many portions of the brain which are involved in feeling empathy, and in exercising “theory of mind,” the ability to theorize how the other person “works.”  Singer’s research suggest that deep reading elicits these same activities.

Wolf also worries that the superficial, exclusively on-line reading decreases the amount we actually learn and retain, so that we have less knowledge through which to filter new information and feelings; we are less equipped to analyze the new material’s accuracy, likelihood, and relevance (this surely has something to do with so many people readily accepting disinformation and misinformation on-line).  Too much of our knowledge is externalized so that, unless we are prompted to look it up again on Google or wherever, we will not recall it readily enough to analyze the new. It is this lack of knowledge of history that Trilby Kent fears in The Vanishing Past:  Making the Case for the Future of History¸ although her work addresses primarily the Ontario public education system. Both worry, also, that spending too much time taking in the new information, limits the amount of time we have to actually think.

On the bright side, there is emerging evidence that children who are properly trained can use their working memory better than adults, and be aware of a variety of inputs while at the same time still doing deep thinking.  This she feels should be encouraged following more research, because the ability to deal with significant volumes of new information while still thinking deeply would mean our children will have capabilities significantly better than the adult generation, and will be better able to deal with more of the future. Wolf goes on to propose a way of training children in what she calls “bilateral thinking,” also called festiva lente, that is, hurrying slowly.

Wolf describes three “lives” of the reader.  The first is gathering information, in which we are awash. The second is immersion in the several forms of entertainment and using our time. The third is the culmination of the two:  contemplation.  This is where we transform information into knowledge and knowledge into wisdom. On this third life she writes extensively.  It is there, I suspect, that we will find our quiet eye.

Perhaps, then, we should not expect to begin our reading with a quiet eye – gathering information (preferably without too much competition from on-line even newer information), and consolidating it into knowledge, are very active processes.  So is the third life, contemplation (or reconsidering), but it is of a different quality.  It takes place deeper in the mind and soul, slowly mixing knowledge with emotion and personal values, perhaps with spiritual experience, providing sustenance to be absorbed into our pesonhood, forming an anchor in our lives.  Finally, the quiet eye.

*Groupiness – Upon reconsidering…