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How learning to read changes mind and brain

Abstract: Reading as a recent cultural invention has not been shaped by evolutionary processes and thus must make use of cognitive systems and brain networks which are either domain-general or have evolved for other purposes. Research on the effect of literacy thus is a powerful tool to investigate how cultural inventions impact on cognition and brain functioning. During my talk, will draw on evidence from both behavioural experiments and neurobiological studies. In the first half of the talk, I will present the results of a series of visual world eye-tracking studies in which we found that illiterates, less proficient young readers, and adults with dyslexia show similar delays in language-mediated anticipatory eye movements. I will discuss potential primary influences of reading that may underlie these effects of literacy on ‘speech prediction’. In the second part of the talk, I will present the results of a longitudinal study with completely illiterate participants, in which we measured brain responses to speech, text, and other categories of visual stimuli with fMRI (as well as resting state activity and structural brain differences) before and after a group of illiterate participants in India completed a literacy training program in which they learned to read and write Devanagari script. A literate and an illiterate no-training control group were matched to the training group in terms of socioeconomic background and were recruited from the same societal community in two villages of a rural area near Lucknow, India. This design permitted investigating effects of literacy cross-sectionally across groups before training (N=86) as well as longitudinally (training group N=25). Our findings crucially complement current neurobiological concepts of normal and impaired literacy acquisition and highlight the need for the inclusion of diverse participant populations in psychological and neurobiological research.

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