HOW LEARNING AND LITERACY ENHANCE OUR BRAINS
To quote from the recent book Reading in the Brain (Dehaene, 2009): "At this very moment, your brain is accomplishing an amazing feat—reading. Four or five times per second, your gaze stops just long enough to recognize one or two words. You are, of course, unaware of this jerky intake of information. Only the sounds and meanings of the words reach your conscious mind. But how can a few black marks projected onto your retina evoke an entire universe?"
In 2010, Stanislas Dehaene, et al. published a study which evaluated whether learning to read improves brain function, and also whether there are tradeoffs for such learning. In other words, does learning to read “occupy” a space in the brain that could or would be used for something else in our evolutionary past?
Dehaene and his research team have used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure how the brain responded to various stimuli, including spoken and written language, visual faces, houses, tools, and checkers in a group of literate and illiterate adults. Ten were illiterate, 22 learned to read as adults, and 31 learned to read as children.
In the end, their studies generated a number of fascinating conclusions. Literacy—no matter at what point in life the skill is acquired, in youth or as an adult—enhances brain response in three ways:
- It boosts the organization of the visual cortex. Located toward the back of the brain, this is the area that processes visual information.
- It allows the area of the brain responsible for spoken language—the planum temprale—to be activated by written sentences.
- It refines how the brain processes spoken language.