Professor Tatiana Chernigovskaya, Corresponding Member of the Russian Academy of Education and Director of the Institute for Cognitive Studies at St Petersburg University, has spoken on ‘The Civilisation of the Book: will it endure in the 21st century?’tatyana vladimirovna chernigovskaya

The lecture was held as part of the festival 'Writing: Values and Meanings', timed to mark Russian Language Day, at the multimedia history park 'Russia:  My History'.

Starting her lecture, Tatiana Chernigovskaya referred to the words of Yuri Lotman that humans are the only creatures on the planet capable of reflection. The attempt to understand the meaning of human acts and their purpose led to the creation of a symbolic world, a semiosphere that exists on a par with the world of material objects. The world of meanings is associated not only with the culture of the book. Tatiana Chernigovskaya believes that the idea of taking accumulated knowledge beyond the biological substratum – our brain – and recording it in drawings or symbols, which emerged thousands of years ago, has been the main discovery of humanity and ensured the existence of our civilisation.

Our brain is more than just the sum of a hundred billion neurons. We are all born with some kind of neural network, which is expanded by life experience. That' s why it is critical for children to be aware of where and with whom they are, what they see and what they hear.

Professor Tatiana Chernigovskaya, Director of the Institute for Cognitive Studies at St Petersburg University and Corresponding Member of the Russian Academy of Education

'If a child is taught music at an early age or is given good books, their network is configured to a completely different level. A mosquito and a frog also have neural networks, but to develop into a high-level being, one has to consume high-level intellectual food, the tuning does not happen otherwise,' emphasised Tatiana Chernigovskaya. That is why perception as an active extraction of knowledge from the world around occurs in those who possess certain ‘cyphers’ or ‘keys’ to it through education. Anyone who does not have them, in the same situation, will simply be unable to process the information.

All living beings have their own systems of communication, but none of them is comparable in complexity to that of humans. The reason for this is rooted in the emergence of a special means of communication – language, a tool that enables the creation of new meanings, said Tatiana Chernigovskaya.

Human language is the gift of evolution. It is structured differently from all other communication systems and has a hierarchical structure.

Professor Tatiana Chernigovskaya

'This structure consists of a certain finite number of constituent elements, conventionally called phonemes (some languages have syllables instead of phonemes), from which, like from a construction set, an infinite number of new forms can be constructed,' said Tatiana Chernigovskaya. 'It is genetically inherent in human beings: in other words, people are those who have a biological right to speak, and then write and read.’

Writing, or more precisely sign literacy, played a key role in the development of civilisation, as it was not only written signs that made it possible to put the accumulated knowledge into so-called external memory – writings on papyrus, petroglyphs (drawings on the walls of caves or rocks). Reading is immense complexity work: it involves no less than 17 areas of the brain. While reading, people remember which sound each grapheme corresponds to, keep track of the order in which they occur and retain the whole word in memory without thinking about it.

Dyslexia and dysgraphia have been recognised as a major global problem, and attempts to solve them have gained momentum: in Russia, for example, the issue is dealt with by the Association of Parents of Dyslexic Children. Tatiana Chernigovskaya said that children with such disorders are often perceived as lazy, or as people with a low intellect, but in fact they just need more attention. A writing disorder has nothing to do with the level of intellectual development. It is caused by the fact that some areas of the human brain remain inactive.

Handwriting contributes to improving the quality of the human neural network and the development of fine motor skills, which is especially important for children with delayed speech development.

Tatiana Chernigovskaya noted that writing is a sophisticated motor job that tunes up the same areas of the brain that are needed for speaking. 'Nabokov uses the expression “the tactile pleasures of careful sketching”. By that, he also meant writing, calligraphy. Those of us who are older remember how we were tortured at school, when first we had diagonally lined copybooks, and then the ones with wide lines. Nowadays we can do without it, of course. However, the point is not that there is no need to write, but rather the quality of neural network one wants to have,' said Tatiana Chernigovskaya. 'If you want to have a high quality network, I shall recall that in Ancient China applicants for high official positions had to pass two exams. And it was not the knowledge of laws, but calligraphy and poetry.’

At the end of her lecture, Tatiana Chernigovskaya gave an answer to the main question stated in the title of the lecture – whether the civilisation of the book would survive in the 21st century. In today's digital world, one has to read a lot of things electronically, but, as the Director of the Institute for Cognitive Studies noted, this is technical reading, different from interaction with a printed publication: 'We look at the book, feel the paper, smell it, and if it's an old book, published a long time ago, we think of how many people have held it. It is sometimes even scary to take it in our hands. So, of course, the paper book will exist if our civilisation survives. If music, paintings, and books are ever be written for us by an artificial intelligence, then this topic shall be over.’