Lip-readers ‘hear’ silent words

Brain’s listening area similarly active when interpreting mouthed, audible stories

girl with floating letters

LIP SERVICE  The best lip-readers "hear" the words their eyes see, a new study suggests.

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NEW YORK — Lip-readers’ minds seem to “hear” the words their eyes see being formed. And the better a person is at lipreading, the more neural activity there is in the brain’s auditory cortex, scientists reported April 4 at the annual meeting of the Cognitive Neuroscience Society.

Earlier studies have found that auditory brain areas are active during lipreading. But most of those studies focused on small bits of language — simple sentences or even single words, said study coauthor Satu Saalasti of Aalto University in Finland. In contrast, Saalasti and colleagues studied lipreading in more natural situations. Twenty-nine people read the silent lips of a person who spoke Finnish for eight minutes in a video. “We can all lip-read to some extent,” Saalasti said, and the participants, who had no lipreading experience, varied widely in their comprehension of the eight-minute story.

In the best lip-readers, activity in the auditory cortex was quite similar to that evoked when the story was read aloud, brain scans revealed. The results suggest that lipreading success depends on a person’s ability to “hear” the words formed by moving lips, Saalasti said. 

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