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Learning to read enhances visual regions of the brain

When we learn to read, a region of the brain known as the “visual word form area” (VFWA) becomes sensitive to the letters and characters we see on the page. 

There is no brain center devoted to reading. Written language is too recent an invention in human history for specific neural networks responsible for processing reading to have evolved. 

Instead, as we learn to read, the brain makes sense of the scribbles and shapes by recycling the same networks responsible for processing visual information like faces and homes. 

It has been wondered if learning to read takes up valuable space in the visual regions of the brain. 

In a new study, researchers from Radboud University Nijmegen and the University of Zurich examined the impact of reading on the visual system of the brain to investigate whether or not reading competes with other processes. 

“When we learn to read, we exploit the brain’s capacity to form category-selective patches in visual brain areas,” said Alexis Hervais-Adelman, a leader of the research. “These arise in the same cortical territory as specialisations for other categories that are important to people, such as faces and houses. A long-standing question has been whether learning to read is detrimental to those other categories, given that there is limited space in the brain.” 

Over ninety adults living in a remote area of Northern India participated in the study and literacy among the participants was varied with some unable to read at all and others skilled in the task.

The researchers used functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging to scan the brains of the participants while they were shown different visual images, words, letters, and sentences. 

By using brain scans, the researchers hoped to show that reading enhances the visual regions of the brain and increases the brain’s responses to visual stimuli. 

If learning to read takes up space and competes with other visual processes, the scans would show different patterns of brain activity between reading and non-reading individuals. 

Recycling visual processes in the brain for reading did not detract from the brain’s ability to recognize faces or houses the researchers found. 

“Far from cannibalising the territory of its neighbours, the visual word form area (VWFA) is rather overlaid upon these, remaining responsive to other visual categories,” said Falk Huettig, a leader of the study and author of the study. “Thus learning to read is good for you. It sharpens visual brain responses beyond reading and has a general positive impact on your visual system.”

The study was published in the journal Science Advances

By Kay Vandette, Staff Writer 

Image Credit: Shutterstock/Tatiana Bobkova

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