7 Consequences of Learning to Read

In The WEIRDest People in the World Joseph Henrich writes about the mental ability that you are engaged with right now if you are ingesting this information without the help of an auditory tool, reading. “Acquiring this mental ability involves wiring in specialized neurological circuitry in various parts of the brain,” Henrich writes. What that means is that reading changes our brain, and consequentially, it rewires parts of our brains that have historically done different things for us. Here is a quick shorthand of the seven ways that reading changes our brain according to Henrich:
  1. Developed a new specialized area of the brain, the left ventral occipito-temporal region
  2. Thickened the corpus callosum which bridges the hemispheres in your brain
  3. Altered areas of the brain involved in language production and other neurological tasks like speech processing and thinking about what other people are thinking
  4. Improved verbal memory and expanded what parts of your brain are active when processing speech
  5. Moved facial recognition predominantly to a region in the right hemisphere of the brain rather than sharing that ability among both hemispheres
  6. To directly quote Henrich, “Diminished your ability to identify faces, probably because while jury-rigging your left ventral occipito-temporal region, you impinged on an area that usually specializes in facial recognition.”
  7. Shifted your tendency to be more analytical in your processing of visual information so that you consider component pieces rather than the whole to which pieces belong
These brain changes are fascinating, and are the result of something we rarely think about as having the ability to restructure and reshape the brain and how it operates. We have repurposed brain processes and structures so that our eyes can recognize text and so that we can associate that text with language and meaning. It is fascinating that the brain can do this at all, and fascinating to think of the changes that take place across the brain when we do this.
Reading, and the changes it makes in our brains, are weird. Not all humans today have the ability to read, and throughout human history, most humans have had no need for reading. But if you are WEIRD, that is western educated in an industrialized, rich, and democratic country, then you can probably read well. You probably have these rare brain changes that most humans have not had. You think about and perceive the world differently than many humans before you as a result of learning to read. What you understand, spend your time thinking about, and what makes sense to you may not make sense to many of your ancestors, precisely because they couldn’t read and didn’t have the same brain structures performing the same brain processes that you do.
This is the starting point for Henrich’s book and the premise that we are the WEIRDest people to ever live. We are different for many reasons from our ancestors, and much of that difference lies in how our brains operate based on the WEIRD settings in which we find ourselves and WEIRD behaviors we engage in.

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