Reading and math overlap in the brain

New Delhi: New research on dyslexia has produced a startling discovery that shows how the cooperative areas of the brain responsible for reading skill are also at work during apparently unrelated activities, such as multiplication.

Though the division between literacy and math is commonly reflected in the division between the arts and sciences, the findings suggest that reading, writing, and arithmetic, the foundational skills informally identified as the three Rs, might actually overlap in ways not previously imagined, let alone experimentally validated.

“These findings floored me,” says Christopher McNorgan, the paper’s author and an assistant professor in the University at Buffalo’s psychology department. “They elevate the value and importance of literacy by showing how reading proficiency reaches across domains, guiding how we approach other tasks and solve other problems. Reading is everything, and saying so is more than an inspirational slogan. It’s now a definitive research conclusion.”

And it’s a conclusion that was not originally part of McNorgan’s design. He planned to exclusively explore if it was possible to identify children with dyslexia on the basis of how the brain was wired for reading. “It seemed plausible given the work I had recently finished, which identified a biomarker for ADHD,” says McNorgan.

Like that previous study, a novel deep learning approach that makes multiple simultaneous classifications is at the core of McNorgan’s current paper, which appears in the journal Frontiers in Computational Neuroscience.

It was a whim, he says, to see how well his model distinguished good readers from poor readers—or from participants who weren’t reading at all. Seeing the accuracy, and the similarity, changed the direction of the paper McNorgan intended. Yes, he could identify dyslexia. But it became obvious that the brain’s wiring for reading was also present for math.

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