Learning to Read as an Adult Changes Deep Regions of the Brain

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iStock

In the evolutionary history of humans, reading and writing are relatively new functions. As a result, in order to read written language, human brains have had to recruit and adapt parts of the visual system to interface with language centers. This is a process researchers have long believed occurred primarily in the cerebral cortex, the outer layer of the brain. But in a new study where illiterate people in their thirties were trained to read over six months, researchers have discovered that reading actually activates much deeper brain structures as well, opening doors to a better understanding of how we learn, and possible new interventions for dyslexia. Their results were recently published in the journal Science Advances.

In order to learn to read, "a kind of recycling process has to take place in the brain," Falk Huettig, one of the collaborating researchers at Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, tells Mental Floss by email. "Areas evolved for the recognition of complex objects, such as faces, become engaged in translating letters into language.”

To study this process in the brain, researchers selected participants from India, where the literacy rate is about 63 percent, a rate influenced by poverty, which limits educational access, especially for girls and women. Most of the participants in this study were women in their thirties who came into the study unable to read a single word.

They divided the participants into a group that received reading training intervention and a control group that was not trained. Both groups underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scans before and after the six-month study. Some participants were excluded due to incomplete scanning sessions, leaving a total of 30 participants in the final analysis.

They were taught to read Devanagari, the script upon which Hindi and some other languages of South Asia are based. It's an alpha-syllabic script composed of complex characters that describe whole syllables or words.

The instructor was a professional teacher who followed the locally established method of reading instruction. During the first month of instruction, the participants first were taught to read and write 46 primary Devanagari characters simultaneously. After learning the letters and reading single words, they were taught two-syllable words. In all, they studied approximately 200 words in the first month.

In the second month, the participants were then taught to read and write simple sentences, and in the third month, they learned more complex, three-syllable words. Finally, in the second half of the program, participants learned some basic grammar rules. "For example, the participants learned about the differences between nouns, pronouns, verbs, proverbs, and adjectives, and also about basic rules of tense and gender," Huettig says.

Within six months, participants who could read between zero and eight words even before the training had reached a first-grade level of reading, according to Huettig. "This process was quite remarkable," Huettig says. "Learning to read is quite a complex skill, as arbitrary script characters must be mapped onto the corresponding units of spoken language."

When the researchers looked at the brain scans taken before and after the six-month training, Huettig says they expected to simply replicate previous findings: that changes are limited to the cortex, which is known to adapt quickly to new challenges.

What they didn't expect was to see changes in deeper parts of the brain. "We observed that the learning process leads to a reorganization that extends to deep brain structures in the thalamus and the brainstem." More specifically, learning to read had an impact on a part of the brainstem called the superior colliculus as well as the pulivinar, located in the thalamus, which "adapt the timing of their activity patterns to those of the visual cortex," Heuttig explains.

These deep brain structures help the visual cortex filter important information from the flood of visual input—even before we consciously perceive it. "It seems that these brain systems increasingly fine-tune their communication as learners become more and more proficient in reading," he says.

In essence, the more these participants read, the better they became at it. The research also revealed that the adult brain is more adaptable than previously understood. "Even learning to read in your thirties profoundly transforms brain networks," Huettig says. "The adult brain is remarkably flexible to adapt to new challenges."

Even more promising, these results shed new light on a possible cause of dyslexia, a language-processing disorder, which researchers have long attributed to dysfunctions of the thalamus. Since just a few months of reading training can modify the thalamus, Huettig says, "it could also be that affected people show different brain activity in the thalamus, just because their visual system is less well-trained than that of experienced readers."

Huettig feels that the social implications of this kind of research are huge, both for people effected by dyslexia as well as the hundreds of millions of adults who are completely or functionally illiterate around the world. Huettig says the new findings could help "put together literacy programs that have the best chance of succeeding to help these people."

Whiten Your Teeth From Home for $40 With This Motorized Toothbrush

AquaSonic
AquaSonic

Since many people aren't exactly rushing to see their dentist during the COVID-19 pandemic, it's become more important than ever to find the best at-home products to maintain your oral hygiene. And if you're looking for a high-quality motorized toothbrush, you can take advantage of this deal on the AquaSonic Black Series model, which is currently on sale for 71 percent off.

This smart toothbrush can actually tell you how long to keep the brush in one place to get the most thorough cleaning—and that’s just one of the ways it can remove more plaque than an average toothbrush. The brush also features multiple modes that can whiten teeth, adjust for sensitive teeth, and massage your gums for better blood flow.

As you’d expect from any smart device, modern technology doesn’t stop at functionality. The design of the AquaSonic Black Series is sleek enough to seamlessly fit in with a modern aesthetic, and the charging base is cordless so it’s easy to bring on the go. The current deal even includes a travel case and eight Dupont replacement heads.

Right now, you can find the AquaSonic Black Series toothbrush on sale for just $40.

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This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links. If you haven't received your voucher or have a question about your order, contact the Mental Floss shop here.


7 Facts About the Hurricane Highway

Hurricane Earl (top) and Hurricane Fiona (bottom) pummel the U.S. coast and Caribbean islands.
Hurricane Earl (top) and Hurricane Fiona (bottom) pummel the U.S. coast and Caribbean islands.
NOAA/NASA GOES Project // Public Domain

Autumn is the peak of hurricane season, also known as Cape Verde season, after the islands where the so-called "hurricane highway" originates. Here are seven facts about this awesome—and sometimes deadly—weather phenomenon.

1. The hurricane highway begins near the African coast.

The Cape Verde Islands, located off the northwest coast of Africa, are where the hurricane highway starts. Thunderstorms destined to become hurricanes often form into a tropical depression near the islands, slowly organizing and strengthening over the following week as the system moves toward the Caribbean. These storms have a long time to get their act together, but they also have to cover a lot of distance without losing their power to reach the East Coast as a hurricane. Some storms are able to thrive with little wind shear, ample warm water, and moist air, while others starve and dissipate if they encounter cooler waters and strong winds, or ingest dry, dusty air blowing off the Sahara Desert.

2. An easterly jet stream gives rise to the hurricane highway.

It’s hard to imagine from North America that a couple of thunderstorms on another continent thousands of miles away can swirl up into a monstrous storm, but it happens almost every year. The extreme temperature gradient between the blistering heat of the Sahara Desert and the more temperate climate of the savanna to its south creates an easterly jet stream that triggers clusters of showers and thunderstorms. These clouds then move from east to west, emerging off the western African coast near the Cape Verde Islands. Every year, the right conditions turn a handful of these localized storms into tropical storms that make their way across the Atlantic.

3. The biggest hurricanes start with the smallest storms on the hurricane highway.

Hurricane Andrew was a Category 5 hurricane when it made landfall in Homestead, Florida.Xanxz/NOAA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Hurricanes, cyclones, typhoons—these are all names for the same force of nature, like Hurricane Andrew, which hit the East Coast in 1992. Cyclones like Andrew don’t just form out of thin air. All tropical cyclones require a relatively tiny “nucleus” of thunderstorms in order to develop. When the air and water temperatures are right, these groups of thunderstorms sometimes spin up into a fierce low-pressure system capable of causing a lot of damage. We see lots of these seedling thunderstorms over the ocean every year, but only a small number of them become hurricanes.

4. Hurricanes form in different places in different months.

Where a tropical storm or hurricane begins its trip across the ocean depends on what time of the year it forms. Storms that form early in the season usually get their start from thunderstorms or cold fronts that stall over the water very close to land; almost all of the storms that form in the Atlantic in June come to life within a few hundred miles of land. When we reach the peak of hurricane season, though, they start to form farther and farther out in the ocean—all the way out to the shores of Africa.

5. Fall is the peak of hurricane season on the hurricane highway.

Hurricane season in the Atlantic Ocean runs from June 1 through November 30. Storms are most common during that six-month stretch of the year, but sometimes they can form earlier or later too. That said, the period between the middle of August and the middle of October is typically the climatological peak of the season. That’s because, as the ocean water gets warmer, the atmosphere becomes conducive to vigorous storms, increasing the risk for hurricanes and tropical storms.

6. Cape Verde hurricanes can easily land in the record books.

This image shows the tracks of all tropical cyclones recorded in the Atlantic Ocean between 1851 and 2014.
Dennis Mersereau

Tropical waves traveling west from the coast of Africa in the middle of the summer are the culprits behind some of the worst hurricanes we’ve experienced in the United States. For example, on August 8, 2005, a small tropical wave emerged off the coast of Africa, soon becoming Tropical Depression 10. That depression would fall apart a few days later, but its remnants kept moving toward the U.S., redeveloping into a new tropical depression over the Bahamas on August 23. That new tropical depression became Hurricane Katrina, the costliest hurricane to ever strike the United States.

It’s a similar story for many—but not all—major hurricanes in recent history. Hurricanes Andrew, Dennis, Ivan, Isabel, and Ike were all Cape Verde–type storms that sprang to life thousands of miles away from where they would ultimately wreak havoc.

7. Strong hurricanes can still form in other places in autumn.

While the far eastern part of the Atlantic Ocean is a hotbed of activity this time of the year, it’s not the only place you need to watch if you live near the coast. Storms that form close to land can quickly spin themselves into catastrophe. Hurricane Sandy formed just south of Jamaica and hit New Jersey in a matter of days in 2012. A tropical depression that developed east of Florida on September 18, 2005, exploded into Hurricane Rita just three days later, with 180 mph winds—the most intense storm ever recorded in the Gulf of Mexico.

Meteorologists are currently predicting an above-average hurricane season in 2020. It may be worth preparing: NOAA suggests gathering a few key disaster supplies to have on hand, getting an insurance check-up, and locating the safest high ground.