To try to isolate the different brain regions involved in reading, Dehaene and his colleagues measured Chinese and French readers' response times in recognizing words on a screen. But unbeknown to the subjects, their responses were being subtly manipulated by a process called priming, in which other words or word-like symbols appear for just 50 milliseconds before the target word is shown — too briefly for the subjects to register the ‘primes’ consciously.
These subliminal images can assist or hinder the recognition process by tampering with the visual or the gestural reading system. For example, the priming word could be the target word written backwards — this slows the recognition process by disrupting the gestural reading system. Or flashing the same target word assists recognition when it is shown properly later.
The researchers found that both the VWFA and Exner’s area were indeed activated in French and Chinese subjects. But there were cultural differences: for example, the effects of gestural direction were stronger for the Chinese.
Frith says that harnessing the gestural system more in education might help young children with reading. “So far the motor decoding side has been rather neglected in reading education,” she says.