Reading and writing are relatively recent inventions, and we have only expected everyone to know these skills for the past 100-200 years. Many people have reading disabilities and the explanation why probably lies here. Unlike sound-based language, the brain doesn’t yet have a designated area for understanding language through written symbols. Instead, we employ a combination of brain areas meant for other tasks when we read and write.
A group of French scientists recently made some exciting findings in this vein. They studied illiterate adults, adults who learned how to read during childhood, and adults who were currently learning how to read. The results showed that the ability to read, regardless of when you learn it, changes the brain in three key ways.
Firstly, the organization of the area that handles sensory information changed. Secondly, the scientists discovered that we employ the brain area we use to hear spoken language to understand written language: the ancient and well-developed language center in the brain helps us read. Thirdly, a brain area involved when we make sounds changes.
The changes to this specific area appear to compromise other functions. The participants in the study who had learned to read as children had a poorer ability to recognize faces and geometrical patterns in black and white as adults. The scientists saw no such effect in the participants who had learned how to read as adults. So if you struggle to recognize people’s faces, a possible explanation and excuse might be that you learned how to read as a child.
But the most significant finding from this study is that multiple brain areas are involved when we read. Reading disabilities can occur if just one area fails. Hopefully, advancements in this field will one day give us individualized programs for reading disabilities.