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In an age where the brain and mind are perpetually beguiled by the limitless visual and aural possibilities of digital media, the novel is experiencing a period of rapid transition. Typecast by a demand for long hours of steady contemplation, the existential manifestos of Proust and Conrad can feel rather old-fashioned, time-needy and, frankly, all too difficult. This occasional essay explores how an evolution in concepts around cellular neuroscience and brain connectivity have identified adolescent behaviours that could predict a shift in generational reading habits in the future.
Process and structure
A culture of reluctance among boys in their late teens to read fiction is a historical legacy of the novel itself, which since the 18th century has been strongly aligned with the feminine, the interior and the passive. Advances in neural imaging however, have enabled a deeper understanding of this disinclination. Specifically, neuroscientific evidence suggests that the pattern may not be merely related to predictable sociocultural factors and familial reading habits, but to the innate differences in cognition and language processing between genders—that is to say, the way in which boys and girls manifest the psychological inscape of a fictive experience.
In a diverse field that borrows from the realms of cognitive neuroscience, functional imaging and theory of mind, a picture of the 21st century brain and its adaptive mechanisms is emerging. The most intriguing, and perhaps most controversial of what are often studies that began at the cellular level, is a series of findings that suggests there are marked architectural and functional differences between male and female brains in the processing of text. The most rapid separation in the developmental trajectories of the brain takes place between the ages of 8 years and 22 years, when sex hormone levels are approaching their peak.1 Indeed, it appears that as the teenage brain develops, gender …
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