Brain sees new learned words as pictures

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 words, 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, neurons 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
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 brain,” (Source: Phys.org)

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