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By Pablo Colado
The ability to read is something firmly established in the human brain: regardless of the language we use or the culture to which we belong, this unique ability in nature activates a region of the thinking organ called the visual word-forming area (VWFA, for its acronym in English). But it so happens that writing was invented only 5,400 years ago, an overwhelmingly insufficient time for the VWFA to have emerged as a product of evolution.
Some scientists attribute it to a phenomenon of "neuronal recycling"; that is, we would recognize words by reusing the same nerve cells that we used to detect simple objects or faces. Something, theoretically, within the reach of other animals.
An experiment carried out with pigeons, which evolutionarily separated from humans more than 300 million years ago, points in this direction. After selecting the four smartest birds from a group of 18 and training them for eight months, the scientists were able to get them to discriminate up to 58 four-letter words from many other non-word combinations.
As the study authors explain in the journal PNAS, pigeons even detected the unions of two letters (diagrams) supported by the English language to represent a sound, a basic skill in acquiring spelling skills.