Our Brains See Words as Pictures

Our Brains See Words as Pictures

As you read this story, think about how you visualize these words. Mostly likely you’re not seeing the letters in each word or piecing together sounds spelled out by those letters. Instead your brain is recognizing each word as an individual picture.

New research confirms our brains work this way, we learn words by training neurons to recognize complete words, not parts of them.

“Neurons in a small brain area remember how the whole word looks — using what could be called a visual dictionary,” said Maximilian Riesenhuber in a media report.

The concept may seem similar to the way we recognize the faces of people we know. But those two processes actually happen in separate sides of the same brain region, the researchers found. Word recognition takes place in the fusiform gyrus of the left side of the brain. The face recognition area is located on the fusiform gyrus at the right side of the brain.

“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 said.

For the study, the team asked 25 adult subjects to learn a set of 150 nonsensical words. The subjects’ brains were scanned using a specific fMRI technique known as fMRI-rapid adaptation that compared their brain's reaction when they were shown known words, the nonsensical words and then the same nonsensical words after they had studied and learned them.

The scans showed that the visual word form area response changed as the people 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 in the same way they responded to real words. The change in the neuron response was visible in the brain scans.

While it may make sense that as we read we’re not spelling out each sound, the area where the research could have the most impact is on helping those with reading disabilities.

Most of us were taught to read, at least at first, by sounding out words. People with learning disabilities like dyslexia can struggle with that method. The new research suggests there could be a better approach.