Learning To Read Transforms All Human Brains

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Reading rewires the children’s brains. Researchers have known as much for decades. What has remained unclear is whether that process is intrinsically tied to mental maturation or whether it is a byproduct of learning to comprehend text. A new study of adults learning to read in rural India may clear things up. Researchers monitoring that process found that reading reorganized adult brains in the same way it reorganized juvenile brains, altering activity in evolutionarily old regions deep inside the brain over the course of just six months. The findings suggest that reading has a consistent neurological effect–that humans who can read are wired differently than those who can’t.

“Even adult brains are amazingly flexible. Learning to read in your thirties profoundly transforms brain networks that support the act of reading,” Falk Huettig, senior investigator at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in The Netherlands and coauthor on the study, told Fatherly. “This is good news. If you haven’t learned to read in your childhood or haven’t learned to read well, it is not too late to start to acquire a complex challenging skill like reading.”

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view into the right hemisphere

Prior studies had shown that the outer layer of the brain, the cortex, changes when adults learn to read. This was expected, as the cortex is the brain’s on-call region dedicated to adaption. But that was only half the story for children, who experienced long-term restructuring in the thalamus and the brain stem. Before this latest study, there wasn’t much reason, from a neuroscientific perspective, to compare how children and adults learn to read.

But this recent research, which took place in India where illiteracy remains roughly 39 percent, challenges that assumption. For the study, Huettig and colleagues recruited 30 illiterate, Hindi-speaking adults from two small villages in North India and scanned their brains with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which detects blood flow to specific brain regions. They then taught 21 of these participants how to read Hindi over the course of six months, and scanned their brains once again. They found that, compared to both the earlier scans and the later scans of the nine participants who did not learn how to read, the 21 participants experienced fundamental changes, even within their deepest brain structures.

northern india reading and writing

As we learn to read, neuroplasticity conquers a network that is deeply rooted in the brain.  © Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences

“We observed that the so-called colliculi superiores, a part of the brainstem, and the pulvinar, located in the thalamus, adapt the timing of their activity patterns to those of the visual cortex”, Michael Skeide, also of the Planck Institute, said in a press release. “These deep structures in the thalamus and brainstem help our visual cortex to filter important information.”

The results suggest that, whether you’re teaching your kid to read for the first time, or brushing up on your own reading skills, practice makes perfect—and, in this case, practice fundamentally changes your brain.

“Our study suggests that reading experience is really important and that reading should be encouraged as much as possible and practiced as much as possible in both children and adults,” Huettig told Fatherly. “In other words, the more both children and adults read the better.”

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