Learning to Read Can Transform the Adult Brain

Fagjun | Published 2017-05-27 20:27

Learning to read as an adult can have remarkable effects on the brain, even on the parts that have nothing to do with reading.

Neuroplasticity refers to the ability of the brain to grow and change. We usually associate neuroplasticity with children's brains, thinking that children have a better ability to grow and adapt than adults. After all, old dogs can't learn new tricks, right?

Not so much. It turns out that an adult brain has more of a capacity to change than we expect. A new study has discovered that learning to read for the first time as adults significantly changed the brain in just six months.

Reading isn't actually in our genes. It's a cultural aspect of human life, and reading hasn't been around long enough to be included in our genetic code. Thus, scientists wanted to learn how reading affects adult brains.

Learning to Read and Write

The researchers gathered 30 Hindi-speaking adults from two villages in northern India to participate in the study. Participants had an average age of 31, can read no more than eight words, and had never attended school. 21 of the participants had the chance to learn to read and write the Devanagari script, while the remaining nine didn't. All the participants underwent brain scans before the study began and once again six months later.

The 21 participants learned how to read with a professional instructor who worked with them for six months. It was during this period in time that the participants' brains went through significant changes. The nine remaining participants who didn't learn how to read showed none of these changes in their brain.

The brains of the participants who learned how to read showed changes not just in the “learning” areas of the brain, but in other areas as well. Participants had changes in their cerebral cortex, which is the learning center of the brain. This, of course, isn't all that surprising. However, the brain stem, whose domain is bodily functions and reflexes, also exhibited remarkable changes. The thalamus, which processes and routes sensory input, underwent changes as well.

So what's behind these unexpected changes? The brain stem and the thalamus also play a role in controlling a person's attention, which is important in learning to read and write. Reading and writing also require better motor skills, because people need to be able to control their eye movements in order to read text.

Old Dogs, New Tricks

Thus, learning to read isn't just about cognition, but also about sensorimotor skills. This study can contribute to further discourse on dyslexia as well. After all, scientists have found that the thalamus has something to do with dyslexia.

The problem with this study, however is that its sample size is quite small. Thus, it's not clear is the same results will come about in other adults. Also, the participants learned to both read and write, so it's not clear which action caused which change in the brain.

However, we at least know now that learning to read is possible even for adults with little to no schooling.

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