The Secret to Learning New Words

· October 2, 2015

Neuroscientists have discovered the secret to how our brain works when learning new words: by seeing them as figures.

People cannot always learn words through spelling and sounding them out (the typical method used when teaching reading). However, it is possible to learn new words if they are presented as visual objects. The good thing about this strategy is that the words can be learned both quickly and effectively.

The nature of orthographic representations in the human brain is still a matter of debate.

A study conducted by neuroscientists discovered that the brain is capable of learning new words very quickly because it sees the word as one unit, instead of as individual letters.

What the study reveals

The researchers found that there is a part of the brain that is holistic (tuned in to recognizing words in their totality), instead of treating them as combinations of letters and syllables. Essentially, the brain can take a photograph of the words in order to recognize them.

Recent reports have confirmed that the visual word form area, located in the left occipito-temporal cortex contains an orthographic glossary based on highly selective representations of each individually written word. This theory predicts that learning new words selectively should boost neural specificity for those words in the part of the brain where the visual form of words originates.

The expert’s opinion

Dr. Maximilian Riesenhuber, a neuroscientist at Georgetown University’s Medical Center who conducted the study said:

“We don’t recognize words quickly from their spellings or their separate parts, as some researchers have suggested. But, the neurons of a small area of our brain help to photograph the entire word and its shape in a way that could be defined as a Visual Dictionary.”


One part of the brain, called the “visual word form area” is vital for learning new words.

Included in the visual cortex is the “fusiform face area,” which is the part of the brain that helps us to recognize faces.

Dr. Riesenhuber says, “One area is for facial recognition, allowing us to recognize people quickly, and the other is selective for a recognizing whole words, which helps us read quickly.”

How the study was conducted

In this research study, 25 participants were invited to learn new words that were actually absurd and nonsensical, and they were asked to learn just the words, without any definitions.

The brains of the participants were scanned before and after the word training, and the changes were analyzed.

The results showed that after learning the different words, the area of the brain involved in photographing the word forms began to respond to the meaningless words as if they were real words.

Dr. Laurie Glezer, one of the primary authors of the study, maintained that “this study is the first of its kind that shows how neurons change their tuning with learned words, demonstrating the plasticity of the brain.”

Viewing words as figures may, according to collected data, help people who have learning disabilities by offering them an easier way to view and learn new words.

In fact, Dr. Riesenhuber is convinced that people who cannot learn words through phonetics and spelling (the typical teaching method), can learn new words as if they were visual objects; this could be a good strategy for learning new words quickly and effectively. 

The part of our brain that analyzes the visual form of the word is not interested in how the word sounds.

The fact that this type of learning is only produced in a small part of the brain is a good and clear example of the brain’s plasticity.

Conclusion

Learning a word seems to selectively inflate the neuronal specificity for new words in the visual word form area, adding these words to the brain’s visual dictionary.

Link to the complete study:

The study is published in “The Journal of Neuroscience”(http://www.jneurosci.org/content/35/12/4965.full.pdf+html)