What is it about?

Previous discussions of the origins of writing in the Ancient Near East have not incorporated the neuroscience of literacy, which suggests that when Mesopotamians wrote marks on clay in the late-fourth millennium, they inadvertently reorganized their neural activity, a factor in manipulating the writing system to reflect language, yielding literacy through a combination of neurofunctional change and increased script fidelity to language. Such a development appears to take place only with a sufficient demand for writing and reading, such as that posed by a state-level bureaucracy; the use of a material with suitable characteristics; and the production of marks that are conventionalized, handwritten, simple, and non-numerical. From the perspective of Material Engagement Theory, writing and reading represent the interactivity of bodies, materiality, and brains: movements of hands, arms, and eyes; clay and the implements used to mark it and form characters; and vision, motor planning, object recognition, and language. Literacy is a cognitive change that emerges from and depends upon the nexus of interactivity of the components.

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I am interested in how societies become literate by using and modifying the material form of handwritten pictures over generations of collaborative effort. The material form of writing reflects, accumulates, and distributes cognitive effort between individuals and across generations. I also look at how the material form of writing becomes increasingly adept at eliciting specific behavioral and psychological responses, and what this might augur about the future of human cognition.

Dr. Karenleigh A. Overmann
University of Colorado at Colorado Springs

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This page is a summary of: Beyond Writing: The Development of Literacy in the Ancient Near East, Cambridge Archaeological Journal, April 2016, Cambridge University Press, DOI: 10.1017/s0959774316000019.
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