Written words have only been around for about 6000 years, but that hasn’t kept some scientists from believing that there’s a specific part of our brain devoted to reading. The existence of a brain region dedicated to reading was first proposed by neurologist Jules Déjerine in the late 19th century. Brain scans appear to support the hypothesis: The region–called the visual word form area (VWFA) and located in the rear of the brain’s left hemisphere–lights up when individuals read words.
A chance opportunity allowed neuroscientists led by Laurent Cohen of INSERM, the Université Paris and the Hôpital de la Salpêtrière in France to put the theory to the test. The team became aware of a man who was about to have brain surgery to treat epilepsy. The surgery was to remove a small area next to the VWFA, so Cohen’s team carried out a set of experiments. Prior to the surgery, the man took 600 milliseconds to read common words of three to nine letters. After the surgery, the patient could still quickly identify objects, but his reading went downhill. On average, it took him over 1000 milliseconds to read a three-letter word, and for every additional letter, the time went up about 300 milliseconds.