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Words as Pictures

The words studied in this research are written words, not spoken words, i.e., words produced by sound waves. What role, then, does hearing play in reading?
| Sadik Tok | Issue 151 (Jan - Feb 2023)

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Words as Pictures

In This Article

  • Even before we speak, even before we intend and plan to speak, and although we only think about the word, the sound envelope of the word is already present in the brain.
  • Pitch changes in the pronunciation of words stimulate neurons in the brain—i.e., they mirror diverse reflections.

Researchers at Georgetown University Medical Center discovered that when we look at a written word, a special part of our brain perceives it “like a picture, not a group of letters needing to be processed” [1].

The researchers studied 25 participants through fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), focusing on a small area just behind the left ear called the “visual word form area.”

What’s particularly fascinating about this area is that a similar symmetrical segment in the right hemisphere of the brain, the “fusiform face area,” is the part of the brain tasked with recognizing human faces. Young children and illiterate adults use both this facial recognition and word imaging areas to recognize faces. Once they learn to read and write, the word imaging area performs word recognition only. As familiar faces are stored in our memory (facial recognition area), the words we learn are also entered one after another in this visual word dictionary.

Words we write, think, speak

The words studied in this research are written words, not spoken words, i.e., words produced by sound waves. What role, then, does hearing play in reading?

Neuroscientist Lorenzo Magrassi and his colleagues focused on neural activity in the language and speech processing/production center of the brain, known as Broca's area [2], in 16 participants. One of the most interesting aspects of this experiment was that it could only be performed during “awake surgery”—i.e., when the participants were awake and their skull was partially open [3]. Since the brain itself does not feel pain, this form of research can be done with an open skull.

When people hear speech, it is transmitted from the ear to the brain as a sound signal or sound wave and triggers a neural activity and fluctuation in the brain via electromagnetic waves. This wave packet unit of sound is called the “sound envelope” or “sound sheath.” Hence, we can assume that each word has a sound envelope and a corresponding neural activity and electrical fluctuation in the brain.

Magrassi and his team discovered that the neural electromagnetic fluctuation matching of the sound envelope and neural electromagnetic fluctuations that occur when we read aloud or when we hear a word is the same when we read silently; neural activity in Broca’s area is the same as if the words were heard. Even before we speak, even before we intend and plan to speak, and although we only think about the word, the sound envelope of the word is already present in the brain. This discovery explains why we feel as if we hear the words inside us even when we are merely thinking about them. Accordingly, researchers started work on an interface software that would enable human-computer compatibility in transmitting thought words from the brain to the outside, even without speaking [4]. This will enable people with defective speech organs to convey what they think to their interlocutors helped by special software and hardware.

In sum, a word thought, whether read silently or pronounced, is first represented in the brain’s visual word form area and in Broca’s area as a sound envelope-neural activity. The word is given a certain form and, if we speak, it is reflected in the same areas of the listeners’ brains in a symmetrical process. These brain areas are created as “mirrors” where the word is reflected [5].

Since words also convey our feelings, when a word we choose is conveyed with its features, does it evoke similar feelings in the interlocutor? In another study on this matter [6], it was discovered that pitch changes in the pronunciation of words stimulate neurons in the brain—i.e., they mirror diverse reflections. By paying attention to the pitch of a speaker's voice, it is possible to guess whether they are sincere or not. A person lying often averts their eyes because the feature of the word they pronounce does not match the word-imaging area in their brain.

It can be said in light of these studies that the human brain by default bears the ability to mirror the feature of words and that words are not any sound wave in the air. At this instant, let’s remember the following observation of Bediuzzaman Said Nursi:

Just as His art in the universe is in the form of a book, describing its perfect orderedness, so too His coloring and the inscription of His wisdom in human has opened the flower of speech. That is, His art is so meaningful, sensitive, and beautiful that it has caused the components of that animate machine to speak as though they were gramophones. It has given human such a dominical coloring in their ‘fairest of forms’ that the flower of speech and expression, which is immaterial, insubstantial and living, has opened in their material, corporeal and solid head. And it has equipped the power of speech and expression, which is situated in human’s head, with such exalted tools and abilities that it has caused it to develop and progress to a degree whereat they become the addressee of the Pre-Eternal Monarch. That is, the dominical coloring in human’s essential nature has opened the flower of divine address. Is it at all possible that anything other than the Single One of Unity could interfere in that art in creatures, which is so high as to be in the form of a book, and in that coloring in human whereby they attain the station of speech and address? [7]

Footnotes

  • “After Learning New Words, Brain Sees Them as Pictures”, gumc.georgetown.edu/news-release/after-learning-new-words-brain-sees-them-as-pictures/
  • “Broca's area”, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ Broca's_area
  • “Why you can 'hear' words inside your head”, www.bbc.com/future/article/20200929-what-your-thoughts-sound-like
  • “The Long Search for a Computer That Speaks Your Mind”, www.wired.com/story/the-long-search-for-a-computer-that-speaks-your-mind/
  • Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, Sözler [The Words], Istanbul: Sahdamar Yayinlari, 2010, s. 767.
  • “How the human brain detects the ‘music’ of speech”, www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/08/170824141234.htm
  • Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, Mektubat [The Letters], Istanbul: Sahdamar Yayinlari, 2010, s. 265.

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