Brain Flexible While Reading

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The so-called "visual word form area" (VWFA) of the brain may not be strictly visual afterall.

A recent study in the journal Current Biology found that this portion of the brain usually associated with visual reading, is also tapped when blind people read using Braille.

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The team, led by researchers at the Institute for Medical Research Israel-Canada, monitored eight blind subjects with a functional MRI machine while subjects read Braille with their fingers. The VWFA was the most active area of the blind subjects' brains — just like in the brains of people who read visually.

If it's true that parts of the brain are specialized for sensory input, other areas of the brain focusing on tactile sensory would have lit up during the experiment. This was not the case, researchers say.

Authors of the study write that the work supports a metamodal theory of the brain, or one in which portions of the brain are task-based and should not be limited to one mode of sensory input. In fact, they believe the VWFA needs to be redefined — or perhaps renamed — to more accurately describe its purpose.

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Reading is a 5,400-year-old activity, while Braille reading is less than 200 years old, researchers point out. The scientists don't believe the brain evolved to read, but rather that reading uses the brain's existing hardware, which explains why the VWFA isn't limited to one sense. The brain is task-oriented instead.

The team is unsure how tactile information is transmitted back and forth from the VWFA to a blind person's fingers during Braille reading. More research is needed to illuminate how this process works.

The findings also contrast with our tendency to view parts of the brain by their sensory inputs.

It makes you wonder what else was oversimplified in your high school psychology class. Perhaps our brains aren't ready to give up their secrets just yet.

Image: iStockPhoto

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