Skilled readers rely on their brain's 'visual dictionary' to recognize words

Skilled readers can recognize words at lightning fast speed when they read because the word has been placed in a visual dictionary of sorts, say Georgetown University Medical Center (GUMC) neuroscientists. The visual dictionary idea rebuts the theory that our brain "sounds out" words each time we see them.

This finding, reported at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, Neuroscience 2011, matters because unraveling how the solves the complex task of reading can help in uncovering the brain basis of reading disorders, such as , say the scientists.

"One camp of neuroscientists believes that we access both the phonology and the of a word as we read them and that the area or areas of the brain that do one, also do the other, but our study proves this isn't the case," says the study's lead investigator, Laurie Glezer, Ph.D., a postdoctoral research fellow. She works in the Laboratory for Computational at GUMC, led by Maximilian Riesenhuber, Ph.D., who is a co-author.

"What we found is that once we've learned a word, it is placed in a purely visual dictionary in the brain. Having a purely allows for the fast and efficient word recognition we see in skilled readers," she says. "This study is the first demonstration of that concept."

Glezer says that these findings might help explain why people with dyslexia have slower, more labored reading. "It could be that in dyslexia, because of phonological processing problems, these individuals are not ever able to develop a finely tuned visual representation of the words they have encountered before," she says. "They can't take advantage of the fast processing of words using this dictionary."

Glezer and her co-authors tested in 12 using fMRI. They were able to see that that are different, but sound the same, like "hare" and "hair" activate different neurons, akin to accessing different entries in a dictionary's catalogue. "If the sounds of the word had influence in this part of the brain we would expect to see that they activate the same or similar neurons, but this was not the case, 'hair' and 'hare' looked just as different as "hair" and "soup". This suggests that all we use is the visual information of a word and not the sounds."

"When we see a word for the first time, it requires some time to read and sound it out, but after perhaps just one presentation of the word, you can recognize it without sounding it out," she says. "This occurs because our brain first uses phonology to encode the word and match the sound with the written word. Once we do that and encounter the word a few more times, we no longer need the phonology at first, just the visual input to identify the word."

"We hope these findings will serve as a foundation to examine reading disorders," Glezer says. "For example, if people with dyslexia have a problem forming this visual dictionary, it may be that there could be ways of helping train children with dyslexia to form a more finely tuned visual dictionary."

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Nov 14, 2011
" it may be that there could be ways of helping train children with dyslexia to form a more finely tuned visual dictionary "

I wonder if dyslexics could train their minds to differentiate between symbols by using different colors/shades of pigmentation ? Iow, for example, 3's would be a different value on a greyscale from E's, etc. Certainly their minds wouldn't overide color perception ?

Nov 14, 2011
Please take the underlined word ads out of this article! It is so distracting..

Nov 15, 2011
This topic scares me. There was a time when schools taught "whole word" reading -- building the visual dictionary to the radical avoidance of phonics -- sounding out words. Then there was a bit of a revival of phonics. Certainly, absolutely, when I read, I read "whole words". Yet when I encounter a word I haven't met yet, like a name, I sound it out. The phonics is a useful life skill.

Interesting, my children's kindergarten teacher figures out what words the children "know" by asking them to read the word upside down. It appears that the "whole word" reading part of the brain can read the upside down quite well; the phonetic reader, not so much.

Nov 15, 2011
You guys have seen this, I assume ?

" Aoccdrnig to rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. "

Nov 15, 2011
@Isaacsname, lol!, I raed taht wtih gaert dcffiutly :), perhaps this 'visual dictionary' they refer to is optimised by checking the first and last words?, I don't think it's fair to say that such jumbled words can be read without problem, it's quite challenging but fun.

Nov 15, 2011
T---'s a G--d q------n, c-n y-o r--d t--s e----y ? Or is it m---e d-------t ?

Nov 15, 2011
-onversl- , if we -emov- -h- -irs- -n- -as- -etter- in -h- -ord-, it -oul- -ee- -om- -eopl- -til- -a- -ea- it.

Nov 15, 2011
When I was growing up, I had no television and few " toys ", instead, I had books and nature, so I read quite a bit. I read the novel Shgun in 3rd grade, for example. I developed my ability to scan and chunk text, because I saw that it's invaluable for reading large volumes of material, also for searching for pertainent words, ie; text relevent to my inquiries.

Spacing, imo, is important, even good readers are slowed down by spreading out text, also there are sets of logical progressions in conversations and text, iow, we don't have to think about the fact that the word " Kumquat " is almost never found after " Xylophone ".

I do think that this article fails to touch on a very important issue, I know I've mentioned it here on Physorg a few times, buuuut.." Stochastic resonance in visual perception "


...I'd wager money that most people like me who see visual static are also quite adept at reading.

Nov 15, 2011
@gmurphy I read it with great ease. I always tested very well when it came to reading comprehension. I never read the paragraphs...(i never read the assigned books in school either and had the highest grades) I would read the question and then scan for words.
@hush1 Our brain collects data through our eyes, which is why we as humans have battled racism for eons. Here is an example of visual over boyfriend has an incredible grasp of language. He is bilingual and english is his second language, (he has a better understanding than the majority of this country). He has difficulty with the word colonel. He says it how it is spelled, no matter how much I try to work on it with him. He doesn't have any problems with any other words.

Nov 15, 2011
I'm reminded of an anecdote from an old Q.I. episode where it is suggested that Ambrose, bishop of Milan was noted by St Augustine as the first person in Europe who could read without moving his lips...

Makes one wonder; might this 'visual dictionary' be a recent aquisition..?

Nov 16, 2011
Well, perhaps not The Latest, and perhaps, as with our speech centres, 'acquisition' might not be the best term but you get my drift; a recent development, be it re-specilisation of pre-extant nuclei or whatever. Too tenuous a link to draw any conclusions from course but if this visual dictionary is now optimised specifically for reading, and widespread literacy is only a few generations old, it's certainly tantalising from an evolutionary psychology perspective..

Nov 17, 2011
I wonder if and how the data would change if any of the volunteers had been synaesthetes. Word recognition can be difficult if you don't like the color line-up of a particular word. Also, ones visual dictionary might take on more meaning-- more senses, etc.

Nov 21, 2011
Isn't the point that there's evidence that more parts of the brain are involved than previously thought? It strikes me as warranting further invstgtn - makes sense because you can look at a word and KNOW it's spelled wrong even if you don't quite know how to correct it: it doesn't match the entry in your visual dictionary so to speak.

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