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Water Cooler: How reading changed your brain

UPDATED: Sat., Jan. 2, 2021

Caption for WC spotlight goes here.  (Pixabay)
Caption for WC spotlight goes here. (Pixabay)

Written language is such a pervasive part of modern living that it almost seems like the ability to read should come naturally to us. Instead we have to spend hours learning the basics of letters and phonics, and which words defy the very phonics we were forced to memorize.

It turns out that all that toil is because learning how to read requires reshaping and retraining a region of our brain. The Visual Word Form Area is located in the fusiform gyrus which sits in the bottom of the brain below the hippocampal gyrus. It spans across the base of the temporal and occipital lobes. Nobody is certain what the exact function of the fusiform gyrus is, but it has been linked to the ability to recognize faces as well as neurological phenomena like synesthesia and dyslexia.

Likewise, the VWFA’s exactly purpose is still a bit of a mystery, although it is hypothesized to be responsible for our ability to identify words and letters and then link them to organized sounds and meanings. That might lead you to think that this region of the brain was created to give humans the ability to read, but you’d be forgetting something crucial.

The alphabet and written language is a fairly recent invention in the history of human existence, and widespread literacy is even more recent. In fact, the National Center for Education Statistics reports that as of 2013, about 79% of U.S. adults had basic English literacy skills. The VWFA would not have had the time to evolve specifically for reading abilities and illiteracy would likely be extremely rare.

So the VWFA didn’t evolve for reading, but it is known to be crucial to the ability to read. Researchers began to recognize that connection in the late 1800s when they noticed that patients who had lost their ability to read due to damage to the brain, caused by something like a stroke, always had damage in the VWFA or areas near it. They began to wonder if that part of the brain had evolved for reading, but modern psychologists know otherwise.

Most of the VWFAs original functions include processing visual categories like objects, faces, body parts and places. The current, best explanation researchers have is that learning to read effectively recycles parts of the brain, using it to recognize and understand letters potentially at the expense of other things like shapes or faces.

A 2018 study (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5856411/) published in PLOS Biology tested this cortical recycling hypothesis by scanning the visual cortexes of 10 six-year-old children with FMRI during the first few months they were learning to read. They were scanned every two months and during the scan they would watch images of houses, tools, numbers, faces, bodies and letters.

As they acquired reading abilities, the VWFA began to selectively respond to written words. Reading abilities became prioritized in areas of the VWFA that were weakly specialized, such as areas that showed responsiveness to pictures of tools. Those weaker specializations didn’t go away but they stopped developing as that area was repurposed to recognize letters and words.

Various other studies have had similar findings, showing with fMRI scans that the VWFA of adults who can read well were highly active when asked to read while adults with low or no literacy had significantly less activity in the VWFA.

The VWFA is actually in an excellent location for this neuronal recycling because the fusiform gyrus offers fast white matter connections to both visual and language areas of the brain, two types of important information processed in the act of reading.

All that work to retrain your brain shows that reading is a fascinating feat and that our minds are capable of amazing things with a bit of practice.

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