Use Your Brain’s ‘Visual Dictionary’

When you read, how do you recognize the words and their meaning? Is it by sounding out the word, recognizing the look of the letters, or both? It turns out that it is just by the appearance of the word that you recognize its meaning, which we store in our mind’s “visual dictionary.”

Research from Georgetown University Medical Center in the field of neuroscience has revealed that we read by recognizing the way a word looks, like a picture, and not how it sounds. This new understanding of how people process the written word could lead to better help for people with dyslexia, who have difficulty reading despite normal intelligence.

The visual dictionary in your brain

If you recall the process of learning how to read, it usually involves the slow sounding–out of each word by letter or syllable. Since this is how we begin reading, it seems like we would continue to do so as we get better, just more quickly. But this is not the case – instead, we build what the researchers call a “visual dictionary” in our mind. We remember what the word looks like so that we can recall it faster than if we had to sound it out.

Researchers figured this out using functional MRI (FMRI) studies, which show increases in blood flow to certain areas of the brain depending on what the subject is thinking. This technique allows scientists to look for specific regions to “light up” when they are used.

For example, there is an area of the brain that recognizes faces, called the fusiform face area (FFA). Similarly, this visual dictionary resides in another specific area of the brain called the visual word form area (VWFA). Senior author of the study Maximilian Riesenhuber explains, “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,” Maximilian Riesenhuber.

Using FMRI, the researchers could see which neurons lit up when the test subjects read words that sounded the same but had different meanings, such as “hair” and “hare.” Surprisingly, different neurons were activated. To look at the influence of word meanings, researchers made test subjects learn to recognize nonsense words with no meaning. After learning to recognize these pseudo-words, the same brain region was active as with familiar words.

A new way to handle dyslexia?

A better understanding of how people learn to read could provide new ways to teach reading, particularly to those who struggle with dyslexia. “This is the first step in trying to understand what it is that goes wrong, what gets in the way of people being able to learn to read” said first-author of the study, Laurie Glezer.

“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,” remarked Riesenhuber.  In fact, as reported in the press release, a number of people contacted him after his initial description of the visual dictionary in a 2009 publication to report their experiences and success learning words as visual objects.

Visual learning

Our visual memory is a powerful thing. Perhaps this is why it seems easier to read a foreign language than to speak it or understand the spoken version. Those skills require other mental processes as well as physical practice.

Visual memory seems to be particularly important when it comes to memorization tricks. In this post on memorization, a video series is featured that shows a common memorization technique where a list of items is memorized by created a visual story. The words alone, even if we can quickly read them via our visual dictionary, are much harder to recall later as just a list of words.


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