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Researchers: Human Brains Are Prewired To Recognize Words

Contrary to what psychologists had supposed, the ability to seek meaning is built in, not taught

Zeynep Saygin at Ohio State and her colleagues challenged a long-standing belief that human brains are not pre-adapted to learn language:

Humans are born with a part of the brain that is prewired to be receptive to seeing words and letters, setting the stage at birth for people to learn how to read, a new study suggests.

Analyzing brain scans of newborns, researchers found that this part of the brain – called the “visual word form area” (VWFA) – is connected to the language network of the brain.

“That makes it fertile ground to develop a sensitivity to visual words – even before any exposure to language,” said Zeynep Saygin, senior author of the study and assistant professor of psychology at The Ohio State University.

The VWFA is specialized for reading only in literate individuals. Some researchers had hypothesized that the pre-reading VWFA starts out being no different than other parts of the visual cortex that are sensitive to seeing faces, scenes or other objects, and only becomes selective to words and letters as children learn to read or at least as they learn language.

“We found that isn’t true. Even at birth, the VWFA is more connected functionally to the language network of the brain than it is to other areas,” Saygin said. “It is an incredibly exciting finding.”

Jeff Grabmeier, “Humans are born with brains ‘prewired’ to see words” at Ohio State News

It certainly is a remarkable finding. Lead author Jin Li has commented, “It’s interesting to think about how and why our brains develop functional modules that are sensitive to specific things like faces, objects, and words.”

Offhand it appears that humans are designed to communicate. But with that recognition comes responsibility. As Saygin notes, “Experience with spoken and written language will likely strengthen connections with specific aspects of the language circuit and further differentiate this region’s function from its neighbors as a person gains literacy.” It might also shed some light on early childhood failures to thrive due to lack of early communication.

In his last book, The Kingdom of Speech, American novelist Tom Wolfe (1930–2018) made clear how much difference speech really makes to human beings, the way it sets us apart from animals (whether we like it or not):

Speech is a “superpower” whose origin no scientist can explain, one that has allowed the beast with it to control or own every other animal there is. It isn’t merely “an ingenious tool for communication,” says Wolfe; it’s a “nuclear weapon” with unlimited transformative power. The Word, as Wolfe shows us, has become flesh — and not just human flesh. Insofar as the world we experience is an artifact of the being with speech — working all by himself, with no divine or natural guidance — we can call it artificial, as opposed to natural. And “the mother of all artifacts” is the Word itself. Any theory of natural selection — insofar as it claims to explain everything or even just the most significant things — has to scant what these artifacts really are by explaining them as mere mechanisms for adaptation and survival.

The superpower isn’t merely technology, about pushing back nature in the service of comfortable self-preservation. The beast with speech gave himself the power to ask questions about the significance of particular lives, to come up with religions and gods, and to change history with words of hope, with words that can control the thoughts and behavior of millions of people.

Peter Augustine Lawler, “Talking Man, a review of Kingdom of Speech” at National Review

It’s true. So often, when people explain an event that turned their lives around, it comes down to some words that another person said. Maybe it was “Don’t let what went wrong last year ruin your future,” “I’m here to make sure you earn your certificate,” or “You can do better than that. Let’s try again.”

Just words. But words have meaning. And meaning is the “superpower” that wise scientists refrain from trying to “explain,” as if they controlled it.

You may also enjoy: How is human language different from animal signals? What do we need from language that we cannot get from signals alone? (Michael Egnor)


The real reason why only human beings speak. Language is a tool for abstract thinking—a necessary tool for abstraction—and humans are the only animals who think abstractly (Michael Egnor)

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Researchers: Human Brains Are Prewired To Recognize Words