Brain’s Reading Centers Are Culturally Universal No Matter What Language


People utilize the same brain areas for reading regardless of the language they are reading.

The brain scans of French and Mandarin native speakers have shown that people use the same areas in the brain for reading, no matter what language they are reading.

The scientists published their findings in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Reading is connected to two neural systems, one that recognizes the shape of the word and another that assesses the physical movement used to make the marks on a page, states Stanislas Dehaene, a cognitive neuroscientist at the National Institute of Health and Medical Research in Gif-sur-Yvette, France.

Yet it has been unclear whether the brain networks for reading are universal or culturally distinct. Previous studies have indicated that alphabetic writing systems, like English and French, and logographic ones, like Mandarin, Korean, Kanji, might engage different networks in the brain. Dehaene and his colleagues used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine brain activity in Chinese and French people while they read their native languages.

Both Chinese and French people use the visual and gestural systems while reading, but with different emphases that reflect the demands of each language. Hand and eye are critical players in reading. This could help explain why people with dyslexia have very poor handwriting as well as poor spelling.

This could also help develop strategies for general literacy, and ways to attune them to children or adults. All languages activate a shape-recognition region in the brain’s posterior left hemisphere, the visual word-forming area (VWFA). But some research has indicated that readers of Chinese, which places a great emphasis on the order and direction of strokes, also use other brain networks involved win motor skills.

Motor processing is used universally for writing and involves the Exner’s area in the brain. This region is also activated in reading to interpret the gestures assumed to have gone into making the marks.

Dehaene measured Chinese and French readers’ response times in recognizing words on a screen. The responses were being manipulated by a process called priming, in which other words or world-like symbols appear for just 50 milliseconds before the target word is shown. This is too brief to be registered in the prime consciousness.

The images helped assist or hinder the recognition process by tampering with the visual or the gestural reading system. Researchers found that both the VWFA and Exner’s area were activated in French and Chinese subjects, but the effects of gestural direction were stronger for Chinese.

Reference: “Universal brain systems for recognizing word shapes and handwriting gestures during reading” by Kimihiro Nakamura, Wen-Jui Kuo, Felipe Pegado, Laurent Cohen, Ovid J. L. Tzeng and Stanislas Dehaene, 26 November 2012, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1217749109

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