How hard is it to understand language? …to produce words? …to read?

The ability to comprehend language is a uniquely human ability and differentiates us from all other species. We are capable of comprehending language due to the evolutionary development of brain structures related to language and higher-order cognitive abilities (i.e., executive functions), as well as the functional and structural connections between these brain regions.

Over the years, humans also invented the written language, which includes reading and writing, in order to document information and transfer it between geographical places. Starting from pictographs and moving on to letters, written language created a new challenge for the human brain.

How can we translate abstract graphemes (letters) into phonemes (sounds)?

Although written language is a relatively new human invention (approximately 5000 years old), this ability demands that the human brain engages neural circuits related to other sensory modalities, such as visual processing, and includes these regions in the reading neural network. Thus began the new horizon of reading and literacy.

This new development called “reading”, forces the human brain to make the appropriate adaptations, but with that, several interesting questions arise:

Do these neural connections come naturally to all of us? Is it possible that for some, the functional and structural connections between the different modalities are more challenging to form than for others? Is there a critical stage in development to form these connections? Is there a difference between a lack of environmental exposure to written materials (illiteracy) and biological difficulty to acquire reading (i.e., dyslexia)? Is there an adverse effect of an additional environmental component- screen time and content-on the developing brain with respect to language and reading development?

Our center considers answers to these questions and others, using neuroimaging tools that enable us to collect objective data at different stages of development during language, literacy, and reading tasks.