The human brain is predisposed to visualizing words, even before individuals acquire literacy, according to a team of researchers at Ohio State University.
Their paper, published in Scientific Reports, focuses on a region of the brain known as the visual word form area (VWFA), which is used in identifying words and letters.
The researchers analyzed MRI scans on 40 newborns and 40 adults in order to map out regions of the brain and determine which areas are functionally connected to each other. The VWFA is located closely to other parts of the brain that are used in the visualization of faces and other objects—prior to the study, some had hypothesized that its function in pre-literate individuals was similar to that of its surrounding regions, and that it only becomes specialized as children learn how to read. The results of this study paint a different picture, however.
“We found that isn’t true,” said Zeynep Saygin, senior author of the study, in a press release. “Even at birth, the VWFA is more connected functionally to the language network of the brain than it is to other areas.”
In the study, Saygin and her team set out to explore how innate connectivity patterns in the brain—i.e., connections between different regions of the brain that are present at birth—might affect specialization as the brain develops. The researchers mapped out the connectivity of different regions in the brains of newborn babies and then compared them to scans of human adult brains; they noted that the newborn VWFA shared similar connectivity patterns as those of the adult subjects.
The researchers found that the VWFA differs from its adjacent regions in that it is functionally connected to parts of the brain that are used in language processing, even in newborns, who have had limited exposure to both spoken and written language. The VWFA is still considered an experience-dependent region, meaning that as individuals learn to read it becomes more specialized over time. However, the findings of the study suggest that the VWFA is sort of prewired for word and letter recognition, due to the fact that the VWFA has an innate connection to the brain’s linguistic faculties, even before a child has acquired language.
“These data suggest that the location of the VWFA is earmarked at birth due to its connectivity with the language network, providing evidence that innate connectivity instructs the later refinement of cortex,” the paper reads.