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

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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."

How Coronavirus and 31 Other Infectious Diseases and Viruses Got Their Names

Rotavirus—from the Latin rota, for "wheel"—is named for the wheel-like appearance of its particles.
Rotavirus—from the Latin rota, for "wheel"—is named for the wheel-like appearance of its particles.
Dr_Microbe/iStock via Getty Images

As you may already know, the corona in coronavirus has no relation to a certain refreshing beer often served with a slice of lime. Corōna means “crown” in Latin—and Spanish and Italian, too—and virologists chose it in 1968 to describe the group of viruses characterized by crown-like spikes that protrude from their surfaces.

So how do other viruses and diseases get their names? Based on the infographic below, created by Adam Aleksic for his website, The Etymology Nerd, there isn’t just one way. Some, like the coronavirus, are named for how they look under a microscope. The rota in rotavirus, for example, which means “wheel” in Latin, reflects the virus’s wheel-like appearance when viewed beneath an electron microscope.

Others are named after the locations where they were discovered or studied. In 1947, scientists named a newly identified mosquito-borne virus after Uganda’s Zika Forest. In 1977, Yale researchers investigating a string of pediatric arthritis cases in the town of Lyme, Connecticut, started referring to the illness as “Lyme arthritis.” Later, the name was modified to “Lyme disease” when scientists realized patients were exhibiting other symptoms, too.

Still others are characterized by the symptoms they cause. People with tetanus—from the Greek tetanos, for “tension”—usually experience muscle stiffness, and the skin of yellow fever sufferers often takes on a yellow tint due to jaundice.

Find out the origins of malaria, measles, and more below. And follow The Etymology Nerd on Instagram for more fascinating etymological explanations.

etymology nerd infectious disease names infographic
Unsurprisingly, there's a lot of Latin in this infographic.

These 8 MasterClass Courses Will Get You Out of Your Netflix Funk

Chef Gordon Ramsay is just one of the professionals lending their knowledge to a MasterClass course.
Chef Gordon Ramsay is just one of the professionals lending their knowledge to a MasterClass course.
Franco Origlia/Getty Images

Although binge-watching Netflix is always a great way to kill a few hours, you might want to shake it up and do something a little more substantial with your free time. That’s where MasterClass comes in. A subscription package that features over 80 virtual courses in a wide range of subjects, MasterClass can help you explore exciting new subjects or improve your knowledge in an area you’re already familiar with. And all the classes are taught by highly recognizable experts in their fields, so you can be confident that the lessons you’re learning are solid (that Martin Scorsese probably knows a thing or two about filmmaking, after all).

The courses themselves are broken up into individual lessons that are only around 10 minutes long, so fitting them into your schedule is as easy as becoming a professional chess player (or it will be, once you’ve finished the course). MasterClass is priced at $15 a month for unlimited classes or at $90 per course, and you can sign up here.

So whether you want to become the next great young adult novelist or an expert bartender, MasterClass has something for everyone. Check out a few highlights from the course list.

1. Cooking with Gordon Ramsay

Gordon Ramsay, known for his sharp demeanor and high expectations in the kitchen, is an international chef, restaurateur, and television host who’s nothing short of legendary. And in his MasterClass series, he’ll teach you to become a legend, too. This series features the softer side of Ramsay, who teaches you knife techniques, seasoning tricks, kitchen layout, and much more. And, for anyone ready to level up, he also offers Cooking II: Restaurant Recipes in the Kitchen.

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2. Mixology with Lynnette Marrero & Ryan Chetiyawardana

If you’re ready to become an award-winning bartender—or just make a decent martini at home—look no further than this 17-lesson course with master mixologists Lynnette Marrero and Ryan Chetiyawardana. You’ll not only learn to craft the perfect cocktail, but also how to safely incorporate raw eggs into drinks, make complementary drink “seasonings,” and discover the best liquor to pair with food (who knew that whiskey and blue cheese were a match made in heaven?). A good drink has the power to bring people together, and after this course, you’ll be the go-to guru for any dinner party.

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3. Writing for Young Adults With R.L. Stine

After you’re through with R.L. Stine’s class on writing for young adults, you may just become the next sultan of the Scholastic Book Fair. According to his website, Stine has written over 330 books over the course of his career, and he’s provided thrills and chills to millions of readers with his beloved Goosebumps and Fear Street series. Now, he’ll teach you some of his favorite tricks of the trade, like why you should always start with the ending (so you can focus on fooling your reader for the entire book) and how writing from personal experience makes for a more sincere scare. This masterclass will help you perfect the art of scary storytelling and overcome any fears you might have about putting your own experiences on the page.

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4. Conservation with Dr. Jane Goodall

Dr. Jane Goodall is best known for her groundbreaking work with chimpanzees and gorillas, but she’s more than just a scientist—she’s an environmental activist and conservationist who wants to ensure that animal habitats are preserved for years to come. In this course, Dr. Goodall will share some of the conservation lessons she’s learned as a scientist, identify the central problems facing our planet today, and share effective methods for creating change. As she says, one of the best ways to confront environmental issues is by “telling stories, meeting with people, listening to them, and then finding a way to reach the heart.” This course will show you how.

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5. Chess with Garry Kasparov

Garry Kasparov, a chess grandmaster and world chess champion, will help you dust off your old chessboard and learn to play the game like it’s an art form. This 29-lesson class starts with the basics and gets more complex the further you get into the course. Using the tactics he’s curated throughout his career, Kasparov will show you how to approach chess with a strategist's mindset, including the basics of openings, interference plans, and endgames. This class even features other “students” so you’re not just studying the techniques, but seeing how they play out in real time, too.

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One of comedy’s greatest names—and one of film’s most beloved actors—is Steve Martin. The star of film classics such as Father of the Bride and Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, Martin will teach you how to find your comedic voice, develop your persona, and work a crowd so that you’ll never get booed off the stage. And he’ll share his comedic process, which involves more writing and editing than it does practicing in the mirror. This is the perfect class for anyone looking to practice their improv skills or sign up for their first open mic night.

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7. Space Exploration with Chris Hadfield

Make your childhood dreams come true with this course from retired astronaut Chris Hadfield, who’s flown two Space Shuttle missions and served as commander of the International Space Station during his 21 years as an astronaut. And in his course, he’ll teach you the intricacies of space exploration, from learning how rockets work to preparing your body for liftoff. Even if you're not planning on leaving the atmosphere (or your couch) anytime soon, this class teaches you what it's like to be an astronaut. And as Hadfield talks about his unique journey to the stars, there's the chance to learn plenty of life and career lessons that you can apply on Earth.

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8. Adventure Photography with Jimmy Chin

Even if your biggest adventure is going on a walk in your local park, award-winning adventure photographer Jimmy Chin (the face behind documentaries such as Free Solo and Meru) will still teach you how to turn your photographs into works of art. Chin’s class acts as part photography course and part adventure guide, teaching you every step from choosing the right location to editing the final product. You’ll learn how to plan shoots, pack the right gear, and even find clients if you want to go professional. Whether you want to make photography a career or just take the perfect photo of your dog at golden hour, this masterclass will get you feeling comfortable behind the camera and bring some more adventure into your everyday life.

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