A study of people who learned to read in their thirties has found that the new skill changed their brains, and some of the differences were much deeper inside than anticipated. The discovery may change the way we understand dyslexia, and perhaps change educational responses to the condition.
As animals evolve skills, parts of the brain become allocated to their operation. However, reading and writing are so recent in our evolutionary history, we have no region specifically devoted to this enormously important capacity. Instead, regions previously devoted to tasks such as facial recognition gained a dual purpose, and others had to act as bridges between our visual and language systems.
"Until now 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," said Dr Falk Huettig of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in a statement.
The brains of young children develop so fast that identifying which changes are brought on by the process of learning to read is almost impossible, but that is not the case for adults. Huettig teamed up with Indian scientists tackling the high rate of illiteracy among Indian women.
A group of 21 adults from northern Indian villages, all but one being women in their late twenties or thirties, were offered basic reading education, in return for having functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) scans conducted before and afterward. At the start of the program, most subjects could not read a single written word of Hindi, their native language, and none could read more than eight words. By the end, they were reading at a first-grade level. This development took just six months, despite Hindi being written in the Devanagari script, which has 46 primary characters and combines them in complex ways.