Two facts about me: I read quickly and a lot. And I'm horrible at remembering faces. These may seem to be random characteristics, but a new study in Science indicates that they could actually be connected.
An international group of neuroscientists scanned the brains of 63 Portuguese and Brazilian participants with an fMRI machine, which lets researchers see active areas of the brain. Of the participant group, 10 were illiterate, 22 had learned to read as adults, and 31 learned as children. The scientists looked at how the brains responded to activities like reading, hearing sentences and looking at objects such as faces, tools, strings of letters and moving checkerboards.
An area of the brain known as the "visual word form area," or VWFA, in the occipital cortex lit up when readers saw words or when any of the participants heard words. It also lit up in response to faces, but less in the literate volunteers. "The intriguing possibility," the scientists write, " that our face perception abilities suffer in proportion to our reading skills." Previous studies have suggested that reading uses the same network that evolved to help humans track prey animals.
But it's not all bad news for us readers. The researchers say that learning to read has benefits for our visual cortices and for processing of spoken language.
Will that be an adequate excuse the next time I fail to recognize someone I've met before?