Story at a glance

  • Brain scans show that learning to read changes primitive parts of the brain that were previously responsible for other tasks.
  • Learning to read doesn’t rely on one area of the brain, but rather several sections that must work together.
  • By better understanding this process, scientists can help people learn more skills and treat conditions like dyslexia.

Learning to read and write changes your life, and not just because you get to enjoy books. Signs in stores or on streets become meaningful. If you need to fill out a job application, you can do it yourself. And you don’t have to ask what’s on the menu.

Learning to read revamps your world, and in the process, does some renovations on your brain. 

In 2017, an international team of researchers did a brain imaging study to see how the brains of people who learned to read as adults would change as a result of the new skill. They did the study in India, where the literacy rate is 39 percent. A group of 21 adults, mostly women in their 30s, would be taught to read and write Devanagari, the alphabet used for Hindi, while a control group of nine would not.

After just six months, those who had reading training could read at a first-grade level.

To find out the effect this training had on the brain, all the participants had brain scans done with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while at rest before and after the six-month period.

To their surprise, the researchers found that learning to read changed primitive parts of the brain that previously was responsible for other tasks.

Until the study “it was assumed that these changes are limited to the outer layer of the brain, the cortex, which is known to adapt quickly to new challenges,” says Falk Huettig, senior investigator at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, Netherlands, via email.

“We found instead that the learning process leads also to a reorganization that extends to deep brain structures in the thalamus [called the pulvinar] and the brainstem [called the colliculi superiores],” Huettigg says.

Those parts of the brain are more primitive, having appeared “earlier in the course of evolution than, say, the prefrontal cortex,” says lead author Michael Skeide, scientific researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences (MPI CBS) in Leipzig, by email.

Reading is a new skill, evolutionarily speaking, only about 5,000 years old. It doesn’t have one brain area dedicated to it.

Instead, a number of areas are involved to accomplish that task, and the child begins to develop networks between those areas, as Diane Bell, a PhD student at the University of Queensland, describes in The Conversation. It then goes to the left fusiform gyrus, which translates those abstract symbols into letters, and then to the frontal and temporal lobes, where we figure out how to pronounce it and what it means.

Some areas had to reconfigure themselves to learn this new skill. The left fusiform gyrus, part of the brain that was dedicated to recognizing complicated objects, like faces, became a translator of letters into language.

“Before reading existed, the brainstem region amplified the information coming from our eyes to make it understandable for higher level brain regions,” Skeide says. “The thalamus region acted as a filter selecting the environmental information that is most relevant to human vision.”

These areas would show us, for example that that thing on the ground isn’t a branch, it’s a snake, and let us know we might want to skedaddle.

Working together

In these newly minted readers, the superior colliculus in the brain stem and the pulvinar in the thalamus began to more closely sync the timing of their activity with that of the visual cortex. The better the reader, the closer the sync, though this relationship is just one of many that contribute to the speed and automatic nature of reading, Skeide says. As in, once you see letters as forming words it’s difficult not to read them.

It’s commonly known that children quickly absorb new information, especially reading and languages, which could make you lose a bit of confidence in your ability to learn as you age. Does this study show that adults can revamp their brains to learn a new language, computer or other digital skills that they might have felt was out of an older person’s reach?

“Yes, this is absolutely what our findings suggest,” says Huettig.

“Older adults may find learning it a little harder, but they have all the potential to excel at acquiring new skills such as reading, if they haven’t learned it before, or a new language or acquiring how to use new technologies,” Huettig says.

Further insights

In addition to learning more about the function of the brain and how it can transform to help us learn new skills, it also gives researchers a bit more insight into the workings of dyslexia.

It’s thought that dysfunctions in the thalamus may be a cause of dyslexia, but the study shows that it’s possible to make major changes in that area of the brain after six months of reading instruction. The next step, they said, was to determine if dyslexia had a connection to the thalamus or that people with dyslexia didn’t get enough reading experience.

And what about  the Visual Word Format Area, which was initially dedicated to recognizing complex objects like faces that reorganized itself so reading could exist? If a person can read well, does that mean they’ve lost some ability to recognize faces and other important, complex things? Not at all — actually, it’s enhanced.

A September 2019 study by almost the exact same team did fMRI brain scans on 90 subjects from northern India, all of varying degrees of literacy, from those who couldn’t read at all to strong readers. When in the scanner, they were shown images such as sentences and letters, as well as images like faces and houses.

The scans showed that those with high levels of reading skills had more similar activation for both types of stimuli than those non-readers, so reading enhances, rather than diminishes, visual skills.

So, learning to do what you’ve been doing the entire time you’ve been reading this article not only opens up new worlds but increases your visual acuity. You’re welcome.

Published on Dec 06, 2019