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Abstract

The acquisition of reading has an extensive impact on the developing brain and leads to enhanced abilities in phonological processing and visual letter perception. Could this expertise also extend to early visual abilities outside the reading domain? Here we studied the performance of illiterate, ex-illiterate and literate adults closely matched in age, socioeconomic and cultural characteristics, on a contour integration task known to depend on early visual processing. Stimuli consisted of a closed egg-shaped contour made of disconnected Gabor patches, within a background of randomly oriented Gabor stimuli. Subjects had to decide whether the egg was pointing left or right. Difficulty was varied by jittering the orientation of the Gabor patches forming the contour. Contour integration performance was lower in illiterates than in both ex-illiterate and literate controls. We argue that this difference in contour perception must reflect a genuine difference in visual function. According to this view, the intensive perceptual training that accompanies reading acquisition also improves early visual abilities, suggesting that the impact of literacy on the visual system is more widespread than originally proposed.