Humans are Born with Visual Sensitivity to Words

It is now clear that, the part of the brain required for seeing words and letters is already present at birth to enable people learn how to read and write.

Researchers analyzed the brain scan of newborns and observed that the Visual word form area (VWFA) is linked to the language network of the brain. Enabling sensitivity to visual words before any exposure to language.

Although the VWFA in literate individuals is specialized only for reading, scientists have hypothesized that the pre-reading VWFA starts out being no different that other parts of the visual cortex which are sensitive to seeing faces, scenes or other objects and only becomes selective to words and letters as learning to read or at least language learning begins. It is believed that even at birth the VFWA is more connected functionally to the language network of the brain than it is to other areas.

fMRI scans of the brains of 40 newborns were analyzed, all who were within a week old and were part of the Developing Human Connectome Project. The scans were compared to those obtained from 40 adults who participated in a separate Human Connectome Project. Since the VWFA is next to another part of visual cortex that processes faces, it was rational to believe that there wasn’t any difference in these parts of the brain in newborns.

Certain features such as high spatial resolution is required by objects for visualization to be possible, this also happens with words. In contrast, it was discovered that the VWFA in newborns was different from the part of the visual cortex that recognizes faces. This difference was attributed to its functional connection to the amygdala, the language processing part of the brain.

The VWFA is specialized for word visualization long before we are exposed to them. A point of interest is how and why our brains develop functional modules that are sensitive to specific things like faces, objects and words. One major emphasis in the study was the essence of developing specialized and functional brain connections at birth even for an experience-dependent category like reading.

Other findings of the study include contrast between VWFA in newborns and adults. One suggestion is the need for further refinement in the VWFA as newborns mature. Spoken and written language are believed to strengthen connections between specific aspects of the language circuit and further differentiation of the functions of this region from its neighbors as a literacy is acquired.

Knowledge of the functions of VWFA at such tender age is required to grapple with understanding how the human brain can develop the ability to read and what may go wrong. It is important to track how this region of the brain becomes increasingly specialized.

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