How Our Brains are Wired to Read

First published August 19, 2010 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

How do we read? How do we take the arbitrary, human-made code that is the written word and translate it into thoughts and images that mean something to our brain, an organ that had its basic wiring designed thousands of generations before the appearance of the first written word? What is going on in your skull right now as your eyes scan the black squiggly lines that make up this column?

The Reading Short Cut

I’m currently reading Nicholas Carr’s “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains,” a follow-up to Carr’s article in The Atlantic, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” The concept Carr explores is fascinating to me: the impact of constant online usage on how the neural circuits of our brain are wired.

But there was one quote in particular, from Maryanne Wolf’s book, “Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain,” that literally leapt off the page for me: ‘The accomplished reader, Maryanne Wolf explains, develops specialized brain regions geared to the rapid deciphering of text. The areas are wired ‘to represent the important visual, phonological and semantic information and to retrieve this information at lightning speed.’ The visual cortex, for example, develops ‘a veritable collage’ of neuron assemblies dedicated to recognizing, in a matter of milliseconds, ‘visual images of letters, letter patterns and words.'”

For everyone reading this column today, that is one of the most relevant passages you may ever scan your eyes across. It’s vitally important to digital marketers and designers of online experiences. Humans that read a lot develop the ability to recognize word patterns instantly, without going through the tedious neural heavy lifting of translating the pattern through the language centers of the brain. A quick neurological tour is in order here.

How the Brain Reads

The brain has a habit of developing multiple paths to the same end goal. Many functions that our brain controls tend to have dual routes: a quick and dirty one that rips through the brain at lightning speed and a slower, more rational one. It’s the neural reality behind Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink.” This dual speed processing is a tremendously efficient way of coping with our environment. The same mechanism, according to Wolf, has been adapted to our interpretation of the written word.

Humans have an evolved capacity for language. Noam Chomsky, Steven Pinker and others have shown convincingly that we come out of the box with inherent capabilities to communicate with each other. But those abilities, housed in the language centers of the brain (Wernicke’s and Broca’s Areas, if you’re interested) are limited to oral language. Written language hasn’t been around nearly long enough for evolution’s relatively slow timeline to have had much of an impact. That’s why we learn to speak naturally just by hanging around other humans, but only those with a formalized and structured education learn to read and write. We have to take the native machinery of the brain and force it to adapt to the required task by creating new neural paths.

Instantly Recognizable…

So, when we read a page of text, there’s a fairly complex and laborious process going on in our noggins. Our visual cortex scans the abstract code that is written language, feeds it to the language centers for translation, and then sends it to our prefrontal cortex and our long-term memory to be rendered into concepts that mean something to us. The word “horse” doesn’t really mean the large, hairy, four-legged mammal that we’re familiar with until it goes through this mental processing.

But, like anything that humans do often, we tend to create short cuts through repetition. It’s important to note that this isn’t evolution at work, it’s neuroplasticity. The ability to read and write is built in each human from scratch. The brain naturally tries to achieve maximum efficiency by taking things we do repeatedly and building little synaptic short cuts. Humans who read a lot become wired to recognize certain words just by their shape and appearance, without needing to run the full processing cycle. Your name is a good example. How often have you been reading a newspaper or book and run across your last name? Does it seem to “leap off the page?” That was your brain triggering one of its little short cuts.

So, what does this mean for online interactions, particularly with a search engine? In next week’s column, I’ll revisit a fascinating brain scanning study that was done by UCLA and take a peek at what might be happening under the hood when we launch a Web search.


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