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With hard work and perseverance, we can change the way we process the world, and if you’ve learned how to read, you’ve successfully re-trained an entire area of your brain!

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Sources:

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https://psyarxiv.com/g3n2m/

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Go to CuriosityStream.com/Psych to learn more. [♪ INTRO]. In many countries around the world, reading is a major part of modern life, so it kind of stinks that our brains don’t come with reading skills, like, pre-installed.

Instead, we have to spend years slogging over our letters and sounding out every word piece by piece. But, hey. If you’ve learned how to read, you’ve got a lot to be proud of.

For one, you’ve learned a new skill! But also, you’ve successfully re-trained an entire area of your brain. This region is called the Visual Word Form Area, or VWFA for short.

It’s located on the left fusiform gyrus, which is a part of the brain that’s really great at processing complex patterns. And until recently, it was kind of confusing to psychologists. Beginning in the late 1800s, researchers began to realize that people who’d lost their ability to read through something like a stroke often had damage to the VWFA or its general area.

And eventually, they began to wonder if this spot was somehow vital to reading. Except, as modern psychologists realized, that would have just been weird. After all, reading has only become a common skill in the last few hundred years, which is way too recent for it to have evolved its own brain area.

So, what was going on here? Well, more recent studies revealed that the VWFA didn’t evolve for reading at all. It can respond to colors, grating patterns, and line drawings, among other things.

And it’s great at taking lower-level input and turning it into something your brain can use. But word processing isn’t one of its original skills. Instead, our current best explanation suggests that to learn how to read, you have to retrain it yourself through hours of practice.

Which arguably, is a lot cooler. Researchers have figured this out through various studies, like a 2010 study published in Nature Reviews Neuroscience. In it, scientists examined the brains of 63 Portuguese and Brazillian adults with various levels of literacy.

Some had been readers since childhood, others learned to read as adults, and the third group couldn’t read at all. Using fMRIs, which can help measure changes in brain activity, the scientists studied the participants’ VWFAs while they read. And they found that those with lower levels of literacy showed much lower levels of activation in that area than those who were expert readers.

Their VWFA was just sort of like “Well, I guess that looks like a pattern,” while the readers’ brains were like, “Hey, look! Letters! Time to activate!” This suggests that a preference for letters and words in this brain area is only really achieved by putting in tons of hard work and learning to read.

Some psychologists suggest that this training happens through something called neuronal recycling. The neuronal recycling hypothesis is the idea that newer brain functions can build off of existing structures and functionality. In this case, it means our brains take an area that’s especially good at processing patterns, and repurpose some of its function to start processing letters specifically.

But like, why the VWFA in particular? There are plenty of places in the brain that process visual information, so it might seem a little weird that all readers end up training this one specific spot. Like they say in the world of real estate, that seems to come down to location, location, location.

For a pattern-recognizing area, the VWFA lives in a prime spot. Its home on the left fusiform gyrus has all kinds of speedy white matter connections to both language and visual areas, two areas that are often really important to reading. That means it’s easy for this region to get visual input from regions in the back of your brain, turn that information into letters and words, and then shuttle those letters along to other regions that can give those things sound and meaning.

So even though the brain does have other visual areas, the VWFA is sitting at the sweet spot. It’s great at recognizing patterns, and it’s highly connected to the other areas needed for reading comprehension. Now, like any other region of the brain, the VWFA is complex, and we still don’t understand everything about its function or development.

But it does tell us that with hard work and perseverance, we can change the way we process the world. Reading isn’t the only way you can learn to see things differently, though. There are also plenty of great films that can show you a new side of the world, and if you want an easy place to watch them, you can check out CuriosityStream.

CuriosityStream is a subscription-based streaming service with hundreds of titles about everything from science to history to culture. It’s available worldwide, it’s pretty affordable, and it has a bunch of exclusive content. Like, this year, they released a series called On the Edge, which explores how far people can push their bodies.

They look at things like temperature, reflex speed, and altitude, and we don’t recommend trying their experiments at home. You can get unlimited access to CuriosityStream starting at just $2.99 a month, and as a thank-you to our SciShow Psych viewers, you can get the first 31 days for free. To do it, sign up at curiositystream.com/psych and use the promo code “psych” during the sign-up process.

We hope you find something that makes you more curious about the world around you! [♪ OUTRO].