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Brain reads word-by-word

Research suggests words are seen as units and processed quickly

5:59pm, April 29, 2009

Reading may be fundamental, but how the brain gives meaning to letters on a page has been fundamentally a mystery. Two new studies fill in some details on how the brains of proficient readers handle words.

One of the studies, published in the April 30 Neuron, suggests that a visual-processing area of the brain recognizes common words as whole units. Another study, published online April 27 in PLoS ONE, reveals that the brain operates two fast parallel systems for reading, linking visual recognition of words to speech.

Maximilian Riesenhuber, a neuroscientist at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., wanted to know whether the brain reads words letter by letter or recognizes words as whole objects. He and his colleagues showed sets of real words or nonsense words to volunteers undergoing fMRI scans. The words differed in only one letter, such as “farm” and “form” and “soat” and “poat,” or were comp

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