Neuroscientists Pinpoint How We Visualize Words When Reading

One brain area sees words as pictures—another brain area sounds out words.

Posted Jun 11, 2016

Matt Gibson/Shutterstock
Source: Matt Gibson/Shutterstock

A groundbreaking new study has identified how different brain regions are responsible for visualizing and sounding out words when you’re reading. People who read words using the visual brain region can identify written words at lightning speed—and read quickly—because this brain region operates independently and processes words at the speed of light, not the speed of sound.

According to neuroscientists in the Maxlab at Georgetown, once you know a word well, sounding it out isn't necessary because reading familiar words uses a specific “visual word form area” (VWFA) which houses a “visual dictionary” used to recall common words.

The June 2016 study, “Uncovering Phonological and Orthographic Selectivity Across the Reading Network Using fMRI-RA,” was published online in the journal Neuroimage.

Using an fMRI rapid adaptation technique, the researchers probed specific brain regions during single-word reading. The Georgetown University Medical Center (GUMC) neuroscientists who conducted this research say that identifying a specific brain region that serves as a visual dictionary debunks the common theory that our brain needs to "sound out" each word while reading.

More specifically, they found that the temporoparietal cortex (TPC) is exclusively sensitive to phonology and the VWFA in the occipitotemporal cortex (OTC) is exclusively sensitive to orthography. The inferior frontal cortex (IFC) showed orthographic, but not phonological tuning and selectivity.

These findings help to unravel the mystery of how the brain solves the complex riddle of reading. By deconstructing the brain mechanics of reading words, the scientists believe they’ve identified clues that will help people with reading disorders, such as dyslexia, learn to read more fluidly. In a statement, lead author of the paper, Maximilian Riesenhuber, Ph.D., said,

"Beginning readers have to sound out words as they read, which makes reading a very long and laborious process. Even skilled readers occasionally have to sound out words they do not know. But once you become a fluent, skilled reader you no longer have to sound out words you are familiar with, you can read them instantly."

Why Do Homonyms Play Tricks on Your Brain?

Source: Conrado/Shutterstock

My 8-year-old daughter recently became fascinated with playing word games based on homonyms—which are words that sound the same, but are spelled differently and have different meanings. (i.e. “flower" and “flour”) She and I play a game of who can come up with more examples of homonyms, which are sometimes called homophones.

Interestingly, the Georgetown researchers discovered that words that were spelled differently and had different meanings—but sound the same, such as "hare" and "hair"—activate different neurons. These homonyms were filed separately in very distinct regions of the visual dictionary. The researchers point out, "If the sounds of the word had influence in this part of the brain we would expect to see that they activate the same or similar neurons, but this was not the case—'hair' and 'hare' looked just as different as 'hair' and 'soup.'"

However, the researchers found that in a different brain region, which was highly sensitive to the phonological sounds of a word, 'hair' and 'hare' were perceived to be the same. "This suggests that one region is doing the visual piece and the other is doing the sound piece," Riesenhuber concluded.

Riesenhuber says these findings might help to explain why people with dyslexia have slower, more labored reading. "Because of phonological processing problems in dyslexia, establishing a finely tuned system that can quickly and efficiently learn and recognize words might be difficult or impossible," he says.

As someone who spends a lot of time reading and writing, this study helps to explain some of the common mistakes I make when I’m typing something on a keyboard. I’m a relatively fast reader, but I had to take a mandatory speed-typing class in high school and can still type about 90 words a minute.

Typing quickly creates subconscious brain slips for me as writer. Because I tend to type from a stream of consciousness state of mind without looking at the keys, sometimes, the wires in my brain get crossed and I automatically type out the phonological sound of the wrong homonym. Unless I print a hard copy of something I've typed on a digital platform onto paper and go over each word very slowly with a pen and highlighter in hand—while sounding out every syllable phonetically—I will inevitably miss my typos while proofreading.

As an example, I understand the difference between “your” and “you’re” but somewhere in my brain the two words are obviously stored in the same bin. At least once a week, when I access the "your/you're" common bin, I type the wrong spelling, which makes the sentence grammatically incorrect. It's annoying.

Another bad autopilot typing habit I have is to type “the the” twice in a row. Again, because I type this word in a millisecond, something must go haywire when I'm speed typing. Then, my eyes will glide over "the the" error during a proofread. Therefore, I've learned from experience the importance of begging (or bribing) friends and family to be a second pair of eyes to proofread something I've written before publishing it. 

Based on the findings of this new study, it seems that one reason it’s so difficult for a writer to proofread his or her own material is that your visual dictionary in the VWFA has already tagged the words. If you don’t stop to sound them out, parts of your brain are incapable of seeing your own errors.  

Conclusion: Why Are Tongue Twisters Easy to Read, But Impossible to Sound Out?

After reading this study, it seems that one interesting aspect of tongue twisters is that they probably tap into different brain regions based on how we visualize and sound out words. Based on my own experience, I've noticed that once my tongue gets tripped up sounding out words, the synchronization of all the brain regions responsible for communicating words is disrupted and creates a type of brain spasm.

For example, my daughter just learned the difference between a dictionary and a thesaurus... Recently, we were discussing how to find more descriptive words to fine tune exactly what you're trying to articulate when writing. I tried to say, “You can also search for the word in the thesaurus.” As we both stammered and stuttered trying to say this sentence repeatedly, we continued to burst out laughing as our tongues and brains became completely discombobulated.

I thought this sentence would roll off my tongue, but I realize now, every time I try to say “the thesaurus” in a sentence my brain and my tongue trip over one another and cannot sync up again. Maybe I'm psyching myself out? Reading the words “the thesaurus” is a visual breeze that taps directly into your visual dictionary in the OTC, but how many times in a row can you fluidly say, “I saw it in the thesaurus”?

The latest neuroscience reveals that sounding out words and seeing them visually accesses completely different brain regions. Hopefully, these findings will lead to more advances that can help people of all ages learn more efficient ways to optimize their reading and writing abilities. In closing, here’s a short clip of a terrific educational tool for learning how to sound out words called “Soft-Shoe Silhouettes” from The Electric Company. Remember these?

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