The brain is able to learn words so quickly because it remembers how the whole word ‘looks’, a new study finds.
The researchers found that a small part of our brain is holistically tuned to recognising words as a whole, rather than as parts or through individual letters.
Dr Maximilian Riesenhuber, a neuroscientist at the Georgetown University Medical Center who led the study, said:
“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,”
A part of the brain called the ‘visual word form area’ is vital to how we learn new words.
Close by in the visual cortex is the fusiform gyrus, an area which helps us recognise faces.
Dr Riesenhuber said:
“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.”
Learn new words
For the study, 25 participants were asked to learn new words that were actually nonsense.
Their brains were scanned before and after the training to look at how it had changed.
The results showed that after learning the visual word form area began to respond to the nonsense words as though they were real words.
Dr Laurie Glezer, the study’s first authors, said:
“This study is the first of its kind to show how neurons change their tuning with learning words, demonstrating the brain’s plasticity.”
People with reading disabilities may find it easier to learn words as a whole, anecdotal evidence suggests, rather than breaking them down.
Dr Riesenhuber said:
“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.
The visual word form area does not care how the word sounds, just how the letters of the word look together.
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.”
The study is published in The Journal of Neuroscience (Glezer et al., 2015).
About the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks:
- Accept Yourself: How to feel a profound sense of warmth and self-compassion
- The Anxiety Plan: 42 Strategies For Worry, Phobias, OCD and Panic
- Spark: 17 Steps That Will Boost Your Motivation For Anything
- Activate: How To Find Joy Again By Changing What You Do
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