“What an astonishing thing a book is. It's a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you're inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic."
― Carl Sagan, Cosmos
Visual Word Recognition
Written words are very special types of visual stimuli. Like all others, they are patterns of light and dark that land on your retinas. But your brain rapidly transforms those visual patterns into sound and meaning (provided that you spent thousands of hours practicing as a child). See this review article for more background.
The theoretical foundation of our work is that word recognition is not as effortless as it feels, and is constrained by how much information the brain can process at once.
How many words can you recognize at once?
While reading this page you can see multiple words all at once, but can you recognize more than one word simultaneously? Our previous research suggest that the answer is no: an internal “bottleneck” processes only one word at a time. Further fMRI studies identified the neurological source of the bottleneck in an anterior sub-region of the visual word form area (VWFA).
Our lab continues to investigate the capacity limits that constrain word recognition and ultimately affect reading ability. At what stage of word recognition does the 'bottleneck' arise? Are there conditions in which you can recognize two words simultaneously? Why is it so hard to recognize words in the peripheral visual field? Finally, how do these processing capacity limits relate to individual differences in reading ability? We hope that our research will lay the foundation for new innovations that will assist the millions of people who struggle with dyslexia.
Another ongoing project, in collaboration with Dr. Martin Rolfs at the Humboldt University of Berlin, investigates the curious link between an eye movement reflex and visual consciousness.