The Art of Speech
Erica Mannis discusses new research indicating humans may be predisposed to speech from birth
The ability to read is a uniquely human trait; no other species can communicate in this way. How is it that our brains can learn such a complex skill in early development? Researchers from Ohio State University have found evidence that our brains are pre-wired to learn to read.
The ability to read is a uniquely human trait
The team analysed fMRI brain scans of 40 new-born babies (less than a week old) and compared them to brain scans of 40 adults. The brain scans had been collected for the Developing Human Connectome Project and a second Human Connectome Project respectively. Analysing brain scans of new-borns found that the ‘visual word form area’ (VWFA) is connected to the language network of the brain from birth. This means that babies have visual sensitivity to words and language before they are born.
The VWFA was assumed to be the same as any other part of the brain that comprehends visuals such as faces, objects and landscapes. However, these scans show that it is more linked to understanding language than other brain areas- even before we learn to read.
The VWFA is next to a part of the brain which process faces and images. Pre-literacy there was no reason to assume the VWFA would differ from this part of the brain; visual objects and words do have similar properties, as both require high spatial resolution to be seen by humans.
However, even in newly born babies, the VWFA is different to the part of the visual cortex recognising faces. There needs to be further refinement in the VWFA as the babies mature, but this is an exciting prospect.
[The VWFA] is more linked to understanding language than other brain areas
Zeynep Saygin– a core faculty member at Ohio Sate’s Chronic Brain Injury program- and his lab are currently looking at brain scans of 3-4 year olds to discover more about the VWFA’s role before we learn to read, and what visual properties it responds to.
The goal of studies in this area is to understand how our brains change between illiteracy and reading brains. This has applications in the study of dyslexia so it is vital to track this area of the brain as it specialises.
This brain link could be novel to humans and opens many new areas of study around our literacy abilities and language development.