Study: Each New Word Creates Pictures in the Brain

Georgetown University neurology researchers believe that your brain is building a visual dictionary as you learn new words.

Researchers believe that your brain is building a visual dictionary as you learn new words.

A study completed in the Department of Neuroscience at Georgetown University Medical Center by Laurie Glezer, PhD, and colleagues, used real words, pseudo words, and brain scans to determine that learning new words changes the neuronal specificity in the part of the brain known as the visual word from area (VWFA). The study was published in the Journal of Neuroscience recently.

By using rapid adaptation functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI-RA) the researchers could see which neurons responded to different stimuli. They found that the VWFA “showed high selectivity for whole real words” but broader tuning for pseudo words.

In the most general terms, these results seem to indicate that the brain recognizes whole words and stores them as images. This is why literate people can read quickly, without needing to think about the phonetic components of each word.

The researchers began by showing participants pairs of words. Each pair consisted of two words that were exactly the same, were different by just one letter, or were completely different. The fMRI-RA scans showed that the brain processed the words that were different by one letter or completely different in the same way, indicating we recognize whole words at once rather than the individual letters making up the words.

Next, researchers tested to see how the brain would react to new words by using pseudo words. They first did a scan while showing participants a list of nonsense words. Then, participants were trained until they could pick the targeted pseudo words out of a list with 80% accuracy. The next set of scans showed that participants brains reacted to the trained pseudo words in exactly the way they reacted to real words.

The results of this study may be useful in helping people who have problems processing words phonologically and require reading remediation. It may be that such people could benefit from visual word learning strategies.

There are still many mysteries surrounding how the brain processes written information.

The researchers who conducted this study suggest future research in how phonological information is used during word-learning, among other topics