The brain sees words, even nonsense ones, as pictures

visual word form area

In the visual word form area, shown in the red box, strings of letters that make words are processed as pictures.

Glezer et al/Journal of Neuroscience 2013

As you read these words, your brain may be seeing each one as a picture.

Scientists looked at the activity in one region of people’s brains before and after volunteers learned made-up words. The results show that after learning nonsense words, the visual word form area, on the left side of the brain near the back, responds to them just as it does to real words. The results, reported March 25 in the Journal of Neuroscience, confirm an earlier finding that this part of the brain makes pictures out of words. The new finding could help people who have trouble reading, the scientists say.

Ashley Yeager is the associate news editor at Science News. She has worked at The Scientist, the Simons Foundation, Duke University and the W.M. Keck Observatory, and was the web producer for Science News from 2013 to 2015. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and a master’s degree in science writing from MIT.

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