A while ago we posted a blog describing how humans are hard-wired for speech and language, but not for reading and writing, which is why the former can be passively learned while the latter must be expressly taught. Now, however, researchers out of Ohio State University have concluded that humans are hard-wired for reading, as our visual cortex ties into our language centers at or shortly after birth.
Jin Li, the study’s lead author; Zeynep Saygin, a senior author on the study and an assistant professor of psychology; assistant professor David Osher; and graduate student Heather Hansen, all at The Ohio State University, analyzed functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans of 40 newborns and 40 adults, and found that the “visual word form area” (VWFA) region of the brain is connected to the language network.
Saygin said, “That makes it fertile ground to develop a sensitivity to visual words, even before any exposure to language,” even though the VWFA is specialized for reading only in literate individuals.
Other researchers had hypothesized that the pre-reading VWFA starts out being no different than other parts of the visual cortex sensitive to seeing things like faces, scenes, or objects, and that it only becomes selective to letters and words when children learn to read, or when they learn a language at the very least.
That hypothesis seemed reasonable, as the VWFA lies next to another part of visual cortex that processes faces. As visual objects, faces contain some of the same properties words do, like needing high spatial resolution to see them correctly.
However, what the researchers found was that, even in newborns, the VWFA differed from the part of the visual cortex that recognizes faces, mostly because of its functional connection to the language processing part of the brain.
“We found that isn’t true. Even at birth, the VWFA is more connected functionally to the language network of the brain than it is to other areas,” Saygin said. “It is an incredibly exciting finding.”
“Our study really emphasized the role of already having brain connections at birth to help develop functional specialization, even for an experience-dependent category like reading,” Li added.
The study did find some differences in the VWFA in newborns and adults. According to Saygin, “Our findings suggest that there likely needs to be further refinement in the VWFA as babies mature. … Experience with spoken and written language will likely strengthen connections with specific aspects of the language circuit and further differentiate this region’s function from its neighbors as a person gains literacy.”
The research was published in Scientific Reports.
So, scientists, researchers, and educators: what do you think?
- Is it reasonable to conclude, based on this study, that reading is a hard-wired skill in humans, along with speech and language? Or is reading, as we discussed before, something that must be explicitly taught and learned, with neural connections only forming later in development?
- What follow-up studies do you think need to be done to confirm or deny this latest finding?
Please post your comments in the section below, and let’s get a conversation going.
Neuroscience News. (October 22, 2020). “Humans Are Born With Brains ‘Prewired’ to See Words.” Retrieved from: https://neurosciencenews.com/neurodevelopment-language-prewired-17202/.
Original Research: Open access.
“Innate connectivity patterns drive the development of the visual word form area” by Saygin et al. Scientific Reports