Reading for your brain

Can literacy change the way your brain works?

While reading and writing are now part of our daily lives, there was a time when mankind relied almost exclusively on spoken language to communicate, and memory to archive and pass on its knowledge to new generations. Strictly speaking, writing is not merely the graphical representation­­­­­­ of things and ideas, rather it is the use of unitary symbols to form scripts that represent these ideas and things. Hieroglyphs and other pictorial forms of semantic expression were used by several ancient societies in various parts of the world, probably as early as 6000 B.C.; however it is thought that writing appeared later, sometimes around 2000 B.C. in the form of cuneiform symbols such as those seen on the image to your left.

Along with writing came reading, the art of deciphering the above-mentioned scripts. Such formalization of language came at a high cost: intensive learning. Originally, scribes were the only members of ancient societies who trained to become experts in the art of reading and writing, dedicating their lives to their craft. Today, as we all know, the reading and writing skills that were once the privilege of a minority have now become widespread. All children are taught to read and write at a young age with some exceptions in developing countries. Learning to read is a long process that requires intensive training but reading (and writing) eventually emerges as one of our effortless cognitive abilities. Like all forms of learning, literacy entails changes in our brain. Neuroscientists think that learning occurs because experience changes the strength of synaptic connections and the wiring of neural circuits leading to the reorganization of patterns of brain activity and changes in our behavior.

While 3000 years – the age of writing and reading – sounds like a lot of time, it is nothing compared to the several hundred thousands of years required for evolutionary changes to occur. Continue reading