After learning new words, brain sees them as pictures

Credit: Rice University

When we look at a known word, our brain sees it like a picture, not a group of letters needing to be processed. That's the finding from a Georgetown University Medical Center (GUMC) study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, which shows the brain learns words quickly by tuning neurons to respond to a complete word, not parts of it.

Neurons respond differently to real , such as turf, than to nonsense words, such as turt, showing that a small area of the brain is "holistically tuned" to recognize complete words, says the study's senior author, Maximilian Riesenhuber, PhD, who leads the GUMC Laboratory for Computational Cognitive Neuroscience.

"We are not recognizing words by quickly spelling them out or identifying parts of words, as some researchers have suggested. Instead, in a small brain area remember how the whole word looks—using what could be called a visual dictionary," he says.

This small area in the brain, called the visual word form area, is found in the left side of the visual cortex, opposite from the fusiform face area on the right side, which remembers how faces look. "One area is selective for a whole face, allowing us to quickly recognize people, and the other is selective for a whole word, which helps us read quickly," Riesenhuber says.

The study asked 25 adult participants to learn a set of 150 nonsense words. The associated with learning was investigated with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), both before and after training.

Using a specific fMRI technique know as fMRI-rapid adaptation, the investigators found that the visual word form area changed as the participants learned the nonsense words. Before training the neurons responded like the training words were nonsense words, but after training the neurons responded to the learned words like they were real words. "This study is the first of its kind to show how neurons change their tuning with learning words, demonstrating the brain's plasticity," says the study's lead author, Laurie Glezer, PhD.

The findings not only help reveal how the brain processes words, but also provides insights into how to help people with reading disabilities, says Riesenhuber. "For people who cannot learn words by phonetically spelling them out—which is the usual method for teaching reading—learning the whole word as a visual object may be a good strategy."

In fact, after the team's first groundbreaking study on the visual dictionary was published in Neuron in 2009, Riesenhuber says they were contacted by a number of people who had experienced reading difficulties and teachers helping people with reading difficulties, reporting that learning word as visual objects helped a great deal. That study revealed the existence of a neural representation for whole written real words—also known as an orthographic lexicon —the current study now shows how novel words can become incorporated after learning in this lexicon.

"The visual word form area does not care how the word sounds, just how the letters of the word look together," he says. "The fact that this kind of learning only happens in one very small part of the brain is a nice example of selective plasticity in the ,"

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Journal information: Neuron , Journal of Neuroscience

Citation: After learning new words, brain sees them as pictures (2015, March 24) retrieved 14 October 2019 from
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Mar 24, 2015
My own investigation, done for my own purposes, found that the perceptual system uses at least two strategies to recognise words:
1) A word outline or 'mask'
2) The letters of the word.

As these are used together they are a kind of mix between the two. We see this demonstrated when reading sentences with numerous errors ~ we read over the errors.

I came across the secret when trying to program a computer, an old green screen computer programming in Basic. An error message kept popping up and as I knew what the error was I dismissed it very quickly.

But then I started to wonder what a strange word in the error message was: bdbdosbb.bds or something like that.

Mar 24, 2015

But then I started to wonder what a strange word in the error message was: bdbdosbb.bds or something like that.

So the next time it came up I looked for it and could not find it. But then I saw it. The word was 'bdos' but just above it was another word, a file name. I don't recall the name of the file now but it was in the 8.3 format, eight letters, dot, three letters.

Part of my dyslexia, it seems, takes the mask from one word and the letters from another word and puts them together, resulting in this strange combination that I must have seen 100 times a day over months.

With that key I then went on to discover correlations to other errors in my dyslexia and why masking the lines above and below the one you are reading works so well for dyslexics (this is a common method).

At least one form of dyslexia, then, occurs when the mask or word template, the 'holistic' image and the letters are merged from different words.

Mar 25, 2015
This makes sense. Likewise, I believe we have stored muscle memory for saying words-- or typing them. When I learned typing in my teen years, I quickly became a very fast typist. I feel this was highly correlated with my being a spelling-bee champion and having a generally good vocabulary. What I found when typing was that if I knew the word (and how to spell it) the process of "pronouncing" the word on the keyboard was completely subconscious. The firing of the muscles to type the word into the keys was completely automatic. When I encountered a word that I didn't know how to spell, however, my typing would dramatically slow down as I consciously typed in each letter. I suspect this is neurally connected to the visual identification correlation of words/letters and our semantic understanding words and concepts.

Mar 26, 2015
This research is interesting in few accounts -
This goes well with my postulate that tuning happens in learning memorization and recalls. Further, the pictures are not exactly understood in this article abstract these pictures are complex synchronized excitations note sometimes we wrongly read visualize a word and get different meaning
. The third is indirectly this explains why human started pictograms for writing including Sumerians!

Apr 04, 2015
The blind that read, write and speak visualize what?.

What does the visual word form area do for them?

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