Writing and the Brain

Here’s an article from Thursday’s i paper by Tom Bawden

Learning to read profoundly transforms the brain, according to research which sheds new light on disorders such as dyslexia.

It is because reading is such a new ability in human evolutionary history that our genes do not provide for a “reading area” i out brains. As a result, the brain needs to reconfigure itself to create one, researchers say.

A study in which illiterate Indian adults in their 30s learnt to red and write revealed that reading heightens brain activity and causes more extensive brain reorganisation than previously thought.

It found that learning to read affects the neural connections in our brain as areas that had evolved to recognise complex objects, such as faces, become engaged in translating letters into language.

As a result, the rain restructures itself to connect the visual and language systems.

Until now, ti was assumed that changes to the brain from reading were largely limited to the outer layer of the brain, the cortex. But brain scans showed increase connections between 2 deeper brain structures, the thalamus and the brainstem, among the adults who had learned to read.

The thalamus and brainstem areas play a key role in relaying sensory and motor signals between different parts of the brain and the rest of the body. The researchers hope the findings could help to treat conditions such as dyslexia.

“While dyslexia has been linked to dysfunctions in the thalamus, the results here show that just a few months of reading training can reconfigure the thalamus, meaning the existing hypothesis may need to be re-evaluated,” said Falk Huettig of the Max Planck Institute in Germany.

This is interesting, but given how important literacy is in our modern world, am surprised this has taken so long. Am also surprised that anyone could think it was a skill restricted to a small area of the brain. Because reading is so very complex. It is about visual recognition of symbols, of recognising patterns in speech, but also triggers a wide range of responses.

Reading about a tragedy might make you angry. It might make you want to respond in some way. Text might stir memories – verbal, visual, auditory, even a certain smell, or recall a certain event, a time, all sorts of things, so text, as with speech, must be connected to many parts of your brain. Even fight or flight.

I think the research has its limits, as most people learn to read as children when the brain is still flexible, so not sure how much we can extrapolate from this work.

This article also reminds me of experiments on musicians who turned professional; I think the music part of their brains moved to their speech areas, so they were really speaking through music, so the very notion of where speech and communication areas operate is flexible.

But I think the most important point here is that learning to read rearranges the brain, it exercises parts of it in different ways, which raises the possibility of more flexible thinking,of more independent and constructive thinking, and that can never be a bad thing.

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