Integrative Physiology and BehaviorJournalLanguage and Communication

Word contexts enhance the neural representation of individual letters in early visual cortex

a) Example stimuli for each condition. Participants observed words or nonwords (i.e. orthographically illegal, unpronounceable strings) with a U or N as middle letter, resulting in four conditions. b) Functional localiser. During the functional localiser, the key letters (U and N) were presented in isolation and without visual noise, while participants performed an irrelevant task at fixation. c) Trial structure. We used a blocked design, in which each 14-s trial consisted of ten words or nonwords with a fixed middle letter. Participants performed an orthographic discrimination task on specific, prelearned targets that occurred once or occasionally twice per trial. Participants were trained in a separate session to perform the task while maintaining fixation at the centre of the screen.

Visual context facilitates perception, but how this is neurally implemented remains unclear. One example of contextual facilitation is found in reading, where letters are more easily identified when embedded in a word. Bottom-up models explain this word advantage as a post-perceptual decision bias, while top-down models propose that word contexts enhance perception itself. Here, we arbitrate between these accounts by presenting words and nonwords and probing the representational fidelity of individual letters using functional magnetic resonance imaging. In line with top-down models, we find that word contexts enhance letter representations in early visual cortex. Moreover, we observe increased coupling between letter information in visual cortex and brain activity in key areas of the reading network, suggesting these areas may be the source of the enhancement. Our results provide evidence for top-down representational enhancement in word recognition, demonstrating that word contexts can modulate perceptual processing already at the earliest visual regions.


Micha Heilbron, David Richter, Matthias Ekman, Peter Hagoort, and Floris P. de Lange. (2020). Word contexts enhance the neural representation of individual letters in early visual cortex. Nature Communications 11, 321.
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