Have you ever wondered how your brain processes those squiggles on paper into words?
When learning to read, we’re taught individual letters and the sounds attributed to those letters, but once these have been learned – do we still visualise words in the same way?
We see words as pictures rather than individual symbols
Recent research carried out by Maximilian Riesenhuber, PHD at the GUMC Laboratory for Computational Cognitive Neuroscience in Georgetown University Medical Centre has confirmed that, rather than seeing individual symbols or sounds, our brains recognise words as pictures, and that we train our neurons to recognise whole words, not just parts of them.
His research confirms that neurons remember how the whole word appears using a ‘visual dictionary’, in a similar manner to that used to recognise faces. However, although these two processes take place in the same region of the brain, they actually happen in opposite sides of that region, with word recognitions taking place on the fusiform gyrus on the left hand side of the brain, while face recognition happens on the fusiform gyrus located on the right hand side of the brain.
The ability to remember nonsensical words
During the study, 25 adults were asked to remember 150 nonsensical words. Their brains were scanned using a specialist MRI technique to compare the reaction of their brain when they were shown firstly ‘known’ words, then the nonsensical words, and finally the same list of nonsensical words, after they’d been given time to study and learn them. The results showed that before any training the brain responded as though the words were nonsense but, following training, the neurons in the visual word form area responded to the nonsensical words as though they were real words. This change in neuron response was clearly visible on the scans.
Helping people with reading disabilities
It’s thought that this research has positive implications for helping people with reading disabilities, such as dyslexia, as learning words as a visual object may prove to be a better strategy than trying to sound out words phonetically. Plus it also confirms that the ability to recognise words as pictures aids us to speed read, as we see words and texts in chunks rather than as individual characters.