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How Your Brain Makes Reading Easy

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Originally posted on April 16, 2015.

Our brains are amazing. I am endlessly fascinated by how the brain works. In nearly every interview I do, the reporter asks, “What part of the brain lights up when that happens?”

Now reread the previous sentences. As you came upon each word, how did you read them? Did you look at each letter and arrange it into a word? Have you ever thought how we read? How can we skim so quickly through a passage and absorb its contents?

Our brains don’t look at letters. So says a new study. Instead of seeing a group of letters, our brain sees the entire word as an image. Neurons in our brain’s visual word form area remember how the whole word looks, using what one researcher called a “visual dictionary.”

Researchers tested their theories by teaching 25 adult participants a set of 150 nonsense words and investigating (using fMRI) how the brain reacted to the words before and after learning them. The results: The participants’ visual word form area changed after they learned the nonsense words.

Pretty cool stuff. But, it’s also useful. Knowing how our brains process words could help us design interventions to help people with reading disabilities. People who have trouble learning words phonetically might have more success by learning the whole word as a visual object.

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About the Author
C. Nathan DeWall is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Social Psychology Lab at the University of Kentucky. He received his Bachelor’s Degree from St. Olaf College, a Master’s Degree in Social Science from the University of Chicago, and a Master’s degree and Ph.D. in Social Psychology from Florida State University. DeWall received the 2011 College of Arts and Sciences Outstanding Teaching Award, which recognizes excellence in undergraduate and graduate teaching. In 2011, the Association for Psychological Science identified DeWall as a “Rising Star” for “making significant contributions to the field of psychological science.”