Science 3 min read

How Reading Improves the Human Brain's Visual System

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

In a recent paper published in Science Advances, an international team of researchers explored the effect of reading on our brain‘s visual system.

Compared with speaking, reading is a new addition to the human culture. We’ve only been reading and writing for about 5,000 years – too recent for significant evolutionary changes.

As such, reading depends on pre-existing brain networks – the visual word form area (VWFA) – that initially evolved for other purposes. This brain region becomes sensitive to the letters and characters as we learn to read.

However, some researchers argue that using the VWFA for reading has a detrimental effect on other processes. Scientists claim that the area takes up space that would otherwise be available for processing culturally relevant objects, including houses, people’s faces, and even tools.

So, a team led by Falk Huettig of Radboud University Nijmegen and Alexis Hervais-Adelman of the University of Zurich conducted a brain imaging study to investigate this claim.

Examining The Brain’s Visual System

For the study, the researchers scanned the brains of over 90 adults using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI).

The participants, who were from the remote part of Northern India, had varying degrees of literacy. They ranged from people who didn’t know how to read to extremely skilled readers.

While in the scanner, participants were shown letters and sentences, as well as other visual categories such as faces.

If learning to read competes with other visual areas in the brain, readers will have to display a different brain activation from non-readers. That’ll confirm the argument that learning to read harmed old evolutionary functions such as face processing.

However, findings from the study suggested the opposite. Instead of hurting how the brain responds to orthographic (non-letter) objects, learning to read actually increased the brain’s response to visual stimuli, said the researchers.

In a statement, lead author of the study, Hervais-Adelman said:

“When we learn to read, we exploit the brain’s capacity to form category-selective patches in visual brain areas. 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.”

Aside from putting an age-long argument to rest, the findings suggest that learning to read is good. It sharpens the visual responses beyond reading and has a positive impact on our brain’s optical system.

Read More: Audiobooks Listening and Reading Trigger the Same Part of the Brain

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Sumbo Bello

Sumbo Bello is a creative writer who enjoys creating data-driven content for news sites. In his spare time, he plays basketball and listens to Coldplay.

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