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O. Sacks on Reading

“Reading is a hugely complex task, one that calls upon many parts of the brain, but it is not a skill humans have acquired through evolution (unlike speech, which is largely hard-wired). Reading is a relatively recent development, arising perhaps 5,000 years ago, and it depends on a tiny area of the brain’s visual cortex. What we now call the visual word form area, or V.W.F.A., is part of a cortical region that evolved to recognize basic shapes in nature, but can be redeployed for the recognition of letters or words. This elementary shape or letter recognition is only the first step.”

“From this visual word form area, two-way connections must be made to many other parts of the brain, including those responsible for grammar, memories, association and feelings, so that letters and words acquire their particular meanings for us. We each form unique neural pathways associated with reading, and we each bring to the act of reading a unique combination not only of memory and experience, but of sensory modalities, too. Some people may “hear” the sounds of the words as they read (I do, but only if I am reading for pleasure, not when I am reading for information); others may visualize them, consciously or not. Some may be acutely aware of the acoustic rhythms or emphases of a sentence; others are more aware of its look or its shape.

— Oliver Sacks: “Reading the Fine Print”