Brain Scans Show How Language Is Processed

It was clear from the student’s expression that he hadn’t understood the sentence. We’d just read “The girl pulled her wagon up the hill” and I was asking him to describe what he pictured in his mind’s eye.

“I see ‘the girl pulled her wagon up the hill.'”

“So, tell me what the girl looks like in your picture.”

“She looks like she’s pulling her wagon up the hill.”

When we hear language, our brains turn the words into mental images based on our own experiences and background knowledge. If your brain doesn’t efficiently access your experience and knowledge, images are often incomplete or inaccurate, which has an adverse effect on comprehension. This is the basis for the Visualizing and Verbalizing program we use in the clinic. If your brain can make an accurate picture, you can use that picture to reason, infer, and predict. Kids who have their mental imagery stimulated through careful questioning consistently see strong gains in reading comprehension and oral expression.

Visualizing and Verbalizing has been around since the mid 1980s, but neuroscientists have recently made a significant discovery that further validates its’ premise. For many years, brain scans could only study brain activity connected to individual words because the signals of brain activity from functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, last for several seconds, which makes it too slow to keep up with natural reading. An average reader processes multiple words per second, making it difficult to see which parts of the brain are activated when processing specific words. To counter this, researchers used an eye tracking device to isolate which words readers were focusing on in a given instant and link the correct neural activity to them.

John Henderson, professor of psychology at the University of California – Davis, published his work in the April 6 edition of Journal of Neuroscience. He and his team specifically measured the neural activity when subjects were focusing on  “manipulable nouns” – words referring to things that can be picked up and interacted with in the physical world. They discovered that areas of the brain related to physical action and manipulation lit up when readers thought about manipulable nouns.

This finding supports the work we’ve been doing in the clinic for years. If you link words to action and real-life scenarios, your brain is able to process the words efficiently. It’s wonderful to have this added validation for our treatment approach. We look forward to seeing how this new type of brain scan will be used in research about dyslexia and other learning disabilities, as well.

As for our student from the beginning of this post, I asked him to get up and show me what the girl was doing. He stood up, frowned for a moment, then put out his hand.

“She’d have to grab the handle and… oh! She’s going to walk this way and hold onto the wagon handle so the wagon is behind her!”

It was clear from the way his eyes lit up that his brain had made the connection to the action. With more targeted imagery practice, his brain will begin to make those connections independently, which will help him become a more efficient learner and communicator.

For more information about the study, check out this article:

Neuroscientists get a new look into how we read

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