Sunday SciKu | Word Form Area

For a long time I’ve been interested the Snake Detection Hypothesis, which says that it was primates’ co-evolution with snakes that allowed for the rapid development of our excellent vision—we had to be able to quickly recognize camouflaged snakes so they wouldn’t kill us as we coexisted for millions of years in the same habitat. My hunch has been, though I’ve never found any research on this topic, that it’s this same high-contrast pattern detection that allows us to read text, and that the “visual word form area” of the brain is an adaptive overlay on top of the snake detection area. If you look at the pattern on a snake, it kind of looks like text. Which has cool implications for the Eden myth, where it was the snake that taught us knowledge. I have no idea whether or not this is true, but it would be interesting if it is.

Anyway, this paper points toward that hypothesis, showing that the visual word form area is pre-wired into the brains of infants. They put 40 newborns into an fMRI machine and showed that they already have the VWFA. Which begs the question—how could this module have already evolved when majority literacy (let alone universal literacy) is only 75 years old? In 1820, only 12% of the global population could read—yet we already have a pre-wired VWFA just 200 years later? How is that possible? My answer: snakes.


your first words
snaking across the page
parting the grass


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.