The neurobiological basis of seeing words

Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2011 Apr;1224(1):63-80. doi: 10.1111/j.1749-6632.2010.05954.x.


This review summarizes recent ideas about the cortical circuits for seeing words, an important part of the brain system for reading. Historically, the link between the visual cortex and reading has been contentious. One influential position is that the visual cortex plays a minimal role, limited to identifying contours, and that information about these contours is delivered to cortical regions specialized for reading and language. An alternative position is that specializations for seeing words develop within the visual cortex itself. Modern neuroimaging measurements-including both functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and diffusion weighted imaging with tractography (DTI) data-support the position that circuitry for seeing the statistical regularities of word forms develops within the ventral occipitotemporal cortex, which also contains important circuitry for seeing faces, colors, and forms. This review explains new findings about the visual pathways, including visual field maps, as well as new findings about how we see words. The measurements from the two fields are in close cortical proximity, and there are good opportunities for coordinating theoretical ideas about function in the ventral occipitotemporal cortex.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Brain Mapping / methods
  • Form Perception / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Models, Biological
  • Neurobiology* / methods
  • Radiography
  • Reading*
  • Vision, Ocular / physiology*
  • Visual Cortex / anatomy & histology
  • Visual Cortex / diagnostic imaging
  • Visual Cortex / physiology*
  • Visual Pathways / diagnostic imaging
  • Visual Pathways / physiology
  • Visual Perception / physiology