In today’s Leaving Proof: We recall how comics were instrumental in our education and consider the implications of Dr. Neil Cohn’s latest neurolinguistic study exploring comics’ visual language—intriguing stuff for anyone interested in the real science of comics.
We’ve come a long, long way from the days when educators, legislators, parents, psychologists, and assorted authority figures stood behind the belief that comics would rot kids’ brains. Sixty years after the fraudulent clinical data cited by Dr. Fredric Wertham in his landmark anti-comics work The Seduction of the Innocent led the US Senate to conclude that comic books had a direct hand in promoting juvenile delinquency, they are now widely recognized as an important educational tool at all academic levels, from kindergarten to middle school to postgraduate studies, for subjects ranging from physics to professional medical care and everything in-between.
The celebrated Italian semiotician and author Umberto Eco is reputed to have said that he learned English “through two sources—Marvel Comics and Finnegans Wake,” and I can personally corroborate his claims about the effectiveness of the comic book as a learning aid in second language acquisition. Years before the first “comics in the classroom”-type initiatives started appearing in North America, comics were already as instrumental as any textbook in my process of learning to read and write in English as a primary school-aged child halfway around the world in the Philippines. While schoolteachers introduced me to the formal, prescriptive rules of the language, it was mainly through reading compilations of MAD, Peanuts, and 2000 AD strips and stray issues of Marvel Premiere, Classics Illustrated, Uncanny X-Men, G.I. Joe, Daredevil, and Incredible Hulk that I learned its nuances. The combination of dialogue and sequential art illuminated colloquialisms and revealed layers of subtext in ways not available in the plain printed word to a young, inexperienced reader just getting the hang of English.
Comics turned the study of English from an onerous school task into something I really wanted to do for myself. Having gaps in my understanding of the conversations between characters annoyed me to no end, so I put a lot of effort into expanding my vocabulary and figuring out the meaning behind common idioms and metaphors in American and British English. In retrospect, it is perhaps because of the influence of those early years of constantly trying to glean the meaning of a comic’s words from its corresponding art that I’ve grown to become a real stickler for clear and unambiguous visual storytelling.
Driven by the desire to get the most out of the comics that passed through my hands, my interest in learning English outside the classroom eventually led to further explorations of the North American and the UK context: The effective and practical study of a new language intrinsically requires at least some study of its associated culture and history (not as easy as it sounds back then in the pre-Internet Third World). This is especially true of comedy—in some cases, years would pass before I could accrue enough cultural grounding to finally get the punchline of some half-remembered gag from one of my dad’s old paperback compilations of classic MAD comics magazine strips from the 1950s and 1960s.
Comics weren’t just useful for studying the subjects of primary school and secondary school English. The abridged Filipino-language komiks adaptations of José Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo helped me get through the somewhat archaic literary prose of the Tagalog editions that were required reading in high school. In a move that was well ahead of its time, one of my Humanities professors at the University of the Philippines actually encouraged students to use a philosophy-themed comic to supplement the textbook readings on Ancient Greek thought. (The title and author of that trade paperback escape me now—all I remember is that it was originally published in the UK in the 1980s and reprinted in the Philippines in the 1990s.) And after I relocated to Canada at the turn of the century, I sought out Franco-Belgian comics to help me grapple with Introductory French.
Comics didn’t just help me learn, they also helped me teach. Working with a volunteer medical organization in college and as part of an unrelated rural community medicine study in the Philippines, I saw time and again how comic book-style handouts and poster-sized comic strips were among the most popular and effective visual aids for explaining both practical health instructions and basic theories of health to indigent and remote rural communities with little-to-no access to educational institutions and resources.
Looking back, the seeming ease with which members of those communities—a number of whom had probably never read or even glimpsed a comic before—grasped both concrete representations and abstract concepts from comics and comic strips with minimal text was probably a clue that there is some innate cognitive mechanism that enables our understanding of the visual language of comics (or visual storytelling of comics, if you like). This is precisely what American cognitive scientist, author, and occasional cartoonist Dr. Neil Cohn has spent the last 15 years empirically investigating.
In a study recently published in the journal Neuropsychologia, Cohn, et al showed that “reading” the sequential images of a wordless comic strip evokes many of the same voltage fluctuations and neural oscillations in the human brain as listening to a spoken sentence, suggesting that we break down comic book panels into the same structural sub-units used in parsing spoken sentences. As we’ve previously discussed in this space, the late comics legend Will Eisner developed a rough theory decades ago while teaching at New York’s School of Visual Arts positing that the visual language of comics is actually a natural language (i.e., a language that arises unpremeditated or “naturally” in the brain). What Cohn and his colleagues have done, however, is present some of the most compelling neurolinguistic evidence yet to support the idea that we are inherently wired to understand comics—that we are essentially born comics readers.
All this raises a very interesting question: If the neurological mechanism that undergirds the ability to understand sequential art is similar to the one that forms the basis of our capacity to understand speech, does that mean that the neurological disorders that impair the ability to understand speech have counterparts that affect the ability to understand sequential images? For example, there is one neurological disorder known as auditory verbal agnosia (AVA) where the afflicted individual is unable to understand spoken language despite being fully capable of reading, writing, and speaking and possessing a perfectly functional sense of hearing. Are there also people out there who suffer from a similar neurological condition that prevents them from making sense of the sequential art in comics? It may be that some of the people who claim that they just don’t “get” comics are genuinely incapable of comprehending them.
It’s very easy to get caught up in the daily soap opera of the comics industry. I must confess to actually feeling quite worn out in recent months from writing about comics and commenting on the industry. The incessant hype-fueled “brand wars” between publishers, the creator conflicts that frequently spill over into social media, the rumor-mongering, the hand-wringing over “reboots” and film adaptations, the constant sniping by fans and critics, the never-ending battles over IP ownership, authorship, and creative control—at the risk of sounding crass and overly-dismissive, some days, it all just feels like a whole lot of bullshit and I wonder why I even bother with any of it. Taking a bit of a step back to appreciate the big picture these past few weeks, though, has reminded me that comics are so much more than just a vehicle for popular entertainment or the occasionally toxic culture that has grown around it. Comics are excellent tools for education, and research such as that conducted by Cohn and his colleagues have implications in all sorts of practical and theoretical fields. Comics may eventually offer a means of breaking through to stroke, dementia, and traumatic brain injury patients who have lost the ability to communicate with the outside world through spoken and written language. The study of how humans process the visual information in comics may provide A.I. developers with insights that can help with the formulation of new models of natural language processing. There is still a lot that we can learn about the comics medium, and there is still a lot that we can learn about ourselves through the study of comics.