A picture is worth a thousand words, except when your brain sees those words as pictures. Wait, what?

New research in the Journal of Neuroscience indicates that our brains learn words as images rather than as individual letters and sounds. It’s kind of like the way we recognize people – we see a whole face rather than just a nose, eyes, and mouth as unrelated features. Another study at Georgetown University Medical Center confirms that our brain learns words as images, much like we recognize the faces of people we know.

The conclusions from this research show that our brain creates a “visual dictionary” to track the meaning of words. Participants in the study at Georgetown University were given a set of 150 nonsense words. Researchers measured their brain activity both before and after learning the words. What they discovered was that the brain responded differently to real words than to unfamiliar nonsense words. But once the participants learned the nonsense words, the neurons in the “visual word form area” of their brains responded as if the fake words were real, thus adding them to the brain’s visual dictionary.

So what does this mean for us? Typically, children are taught to sound out words phonetically – which could present big obstacles for people with dyslexia or other reading disorders. Knowing that the brain transforms words into images may help us someday introduce new, more accessible teaching methods.

Image: Caught Reading, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from John Morgan’s photostream.