How Your Brain Makes Reading Easy

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. 

Pavlen/E+/Getty Images

Pavlen/E+/Getty Images

More Big News from Big Data

Facebook, Google, and Twitter, among others, are enabling psychologists to mine giant data sets that allow mega-scale naturalistic observations of human behavior. The recent Society of Personality and Social Psychology convention offered several such “big data” findings, including these (some also recently published)...

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Psychology’s Second Most Misunderstood Concept?

My nominee for psychology’s most misunderstood concept is negative reinforcement (which is not punishment, but actually a rewarding event—withdrawing or reducing something aversive, as when taking aspirin is followed by the alleviation of a headache). 

In second place on my list of oft-misunderstood concepts is heritability

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Dogs Know When We’re Happy or Sad, Even in Photos

From across the room, both dogs seem to suspect when we’re angry or happy. All they need is a peek at our body language and facial expressions. If you have a dog, you’ve likely noticed the same thing. But did you know that dogs also can tell the difference between happy and angry faces in photographs? 

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I’m Happy, But What If I’m Supposed to Be Miserable?

This morning my wife, our one-month-old daughter, and I went to a local diner. It was a snow day, my workplace was closed, and we were enjoying a rare morning together. Before our food arrived, I took a sip of coffee, looked outside, and said, “I’m so happy.” The story should end there, with our tiny family devouring pancakes and running errands. But then I returned to my house, opened my email, and received some bad news. I was supposed to be miserable.

Or so suggested the latest Gallup Report, “The State of American Well-Being: 2014 State Well-Being Rankings.”

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Feeling depressed? Turn off that television!

Did you watch all five seasons of “Breaking Bad” over a long weekend? Have you ever longed for the weekend so that you can watch episode after episode of your new favorite television show? Are you counting down until Netflix releases Season 3 of “House of Cards” later this month? You’re not alone.

Binge-watching seems harmless—I’ve been known to veg out occasionally after a long week, watching hours of “The Wire”—but is it really? New research says maybe not.

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“Lyin’ Brian”? Or a Victim of the False Memory Phenomenon?

After falsely reporting being grounded by rocket fire while on a military helicopter in Iraq, and subsequently having his reported experiences during Hurricane Katrina challenged, NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams has been grounded by pundit fire.

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Is My Professor “Smart” or “Sweet”? The Answer Depends on . . .

Northeastern University history professor Benjamin Schmidt is making waves, after harvesting 14 million student reviews from “Rate My Professor.”  He offers a simple interactive tool that can allow you—perhaps as an in-class demonstration—to compare words that students use to describe male and female professors. 

You can give it a try, here.  I entered some intelligence-related words (“smart,” “brilliant,” “genius”) and some emotion-related words (“sweet,” “nasty”).  Even as one who writes about gender stereotypes, I was stunned by the gender effect.

Worst Coaching Call Ever? Hindsight Bias and the Super Bowl

Carroll made two end-of-half decisions in Sunday’s Super Bowl, both questioned by the NBC announcers.  Their differing outcomes, and the resulting pundit and fan reactions, offer potent examples of a mental pitfall that has been the subject of 800 psychological science publications.

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Are Smartphones Making Our Thumbs Smarter?

Even though the smartphone has only been around for the past seven or eight years, it’s sometimes difficult to remember what life was like before we had so much information at our fingertips. You could argue with a friend about what year “Back to the Future, Part 2” came out, or in what year the “future” was set. (It was released in 1989. The future, filled with flying cars and floating skateboards, was set in 2015.) 

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Fans Cheering Their Ears Out?

Friday my focus was hearing research and care—at the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, where I sit on the Advisory Council (assessing federal support for hearing research and hearing health).  Days later, I was cheering on my ill-fated hometown Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl.

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