How are words stored in the brain

How the letter gets into your head


Julius Bahr

1 Introduction

The present essay deals with the cognitive performance of human reading. This requires physical and neurological systems. First, the physical requirements and then the processing in the brain are explained on the basis of the current state of knowledge. From these results, suggestions are developed that aim to improve reading performance. These suggestions concern the external form and semantics of the text.

2. How do people see?

2.1 Human physical equipment to be able to see

2.1.1 The eye

The eye enables people to receive images of their environment. The wavelength of visible light ranges from 400nm (violet) to 700nm (red). A ray of light hits the lens first. The lens bundles the light rays and projects the image upside down onto the retina. The retina is filled with nerve cells that are sensitive to light. A distinction is made between cells that can perceive the intensity or wavelength of light. The light is broken down into red, green, blue and intensity components by the sensory cells and transmitted to the brain via the optic nerve. (EYS p.41)

2.1.2 Connection between the eye and the brain - the optic nerve

The optic nerve sits opposite the lens. It connects the eye with the brain.

3. How is the received image processed in the brain?

Pure image information reaches our brain. It is the task of the brain to improve the quality of the image information and to interpret it correctly.
This performance must be done quickly. In evolutionary terms, this is justified by the need for quick reactions and orientation in our environment. When we encounter a dangerous predator, we need to react immediately.

3.1 The individual processing steps of the information of the optic nerve

The brain turns the image upside down. It unites the images of both eyes. Visual blurring and "black spots" on the retina are balanced out by combining the two images. The proper movement of the eye is compensated (EYS p.48).

3.2 Distribution of visual information according to content

The image is segmented based on differences in intensity, outlines and some other features. Alignment lines and outlines are continued (EYS p.21) if they do not exist. Individual objects are isolated from the background. This object information is compared with data that has already been saved (EYS p.45) and the objects are related to each other.
Things that are similar are grouped by our perception, i.e. understood as belonging together. Conversely, things that differ in important characteristics are perceived as separate or independent of one another.
The objects are identified depending on the context. If an interpretation does not fit the context, it is unlikely that this interpretation will become conscious.
The brain only allows one interpretation at a time. People become aware of this.
A well-known example of this is the jug with the silhouette of two faces looking at each other. We always only perceive the mug or the two faces. The perception of the 2 faces is much more likely, however, since the brain specializes in faces.

3.3 Processing of writing

With regard to writing, this means that a plausibility check also takes place. Does the word you read match the previous ones?
The individual letters must have clear characteristics by which you can recognize their position and which enable a clear distinction between different letters.
Depending on the orientation, h, g, d are largely congruent, but can still be assigned correctly due to small, clear differences.
Students can process around 300 words per minute on average (EYS p. 259). Words that were processed earlier are recognized faster (EYS p.258). Words that are unknown or do not fit into the grammatical context are analyzed longer. The following words are also analyzed longer. It is likely that learning will take place. These processes are unconscious. However, it is unclear whether this is inherent or has come about through extensive training (EYS p.260).
If a sentence is made up of semantically related words, the processing time is reduced. It therefore makes sense to build up the contents of a text on top of each other and not to jump back and forth. This has to be taken into account especially with hypertext systems.

3.4 Content analysis

Dre Santa Claus comes blad (SPIEGEL p.41). This sentence is easy to understand.
The prerequisite for this is that the beginning and end of the word are correct. Obviously, a word is classified according to length, beginning and end. So a single letter is not put together to form a word.
The recognition of a word takes place on three levels, which influence each other, in parallel.
There are the word, the letter and the level of the graphic basic elements. Each level analyzes the text in a different way. The word level is based on the length of the word and the content of the word. The letter level tries to recognize the individual letters. The plane of the basic graphic elements recognizes lines and angles between lines (EYS p. 263). If one of the levels has reliable knowledge of a structure, it communicates this to the other levels. If the following information contradicts this, the later information is suppressed.

3.5 The inner voice

While reading, an inner voice speaks to us. In my case, it's my own.

3.6 Storage of the font information

Newer theories assume that we store everything, but only become aware of a part of it. This is vital because otherwise we would drown in a "lake" of information.

3.6.1 The short-term memory

Our short-term memory can temporarily store 7 + -2 units of information.
These information units can be individual letters or numbers. An individual information unit can also be a word or a (short, simple, meaningful) sentence.
A word or a phrase can be seen by our brain as a single unit of information if it is permanently stored in long-term memory.
In order to be able to follow the text flow well, it makes sense to write down information that builds on each other in the logical order. As a result, the short-term memory is not burdened. Texts with many cross-references are therefore often difficult to understand.

3.7 attention and focus

Our consciousness always focuses our attention on one event.
One example that we all have seen before is a crowd of people talking. In this case, the words from the different mouths are pretty much the same loud. But we can only listen to one voice (EYS p.114). In fact, we also take note of the other sound sources, but the focus is only on a single one.
However, information from the unobserved sound sources can certainly be recorded subconsciously. Attention can change depending on this unconscious information.

The visual attention while reading works like the light beam of a flashlight (EYS p.122).
We only see what we concentrate on.
In order to understand the text, it is important that line spacing and letters are not too large so that the relevant information is all in this "cone of light". If not, the short-term memory would be overwhelmed.
Contents that are outside of this focus are not noticed (EYS p.125).

3.7.1 What bothers the attention

Perception of has the greatest potential for distraction Move.
This is also due to evolution. If a tiger leaps towards us, we should draw our attention to it quickly.
Movement will always get attention.
However, it is possible to do more than one thing at the same time.
This becomes easier the more differences there are between the tasks. For example, listening to instrumental music and reading. If, in this case, music were to be played with vocals, the attention to the text would decrease.
The extreme example of this is reading two texts at the same time. The same sense is addressed here and the task at hand is identical. In this case, the same areas of the brain would have to work in parallel. As we all know, this doesn't work.

4. Other implications to improve reading performance

Since we compare our perception with empirical values, the general rule is that in order to achieve optimal readability, one should not deviate from the expectations of the brain.
It is particularly noteworthy that all aids must not distract from what is essential. The focus must be on the content.

4.1 Physical inferences

The eye has a limited ability to resolve.
Depending on the distance, 2 points are perceived as one. This phenomenon is used, for example, in cathode ray monitors.
This physical limitation must be fundamentally taken into account.

4.1.1 Characters on a line

It is necessary to write characters on one line.
This recognizes that words are related. This is the only way to create words / sentences.
The eye only needs to move minimally in one direction to be able to read.
The organization of words in lines is fundamental to any writing system.
One line serves as a visual "railing" for the eye.
A subtle line on the underside of the letters could help as a guide.

4.1.2 Line spacing

Line spacing is influenced by several factors.
Related content must be grouped together. This means that the content must also be reflected in the structure of the text.
The line spacing within a paragraph must be chosen so that the eye has no problem distinguishing the lines.
On the other hand, the eye shouldn't have to jump too far from line to line.
The goal must be a balance between the factors.
As an aid, a line can be used here, as mentioned in the previous point, which alternately changes color line by line.

4.1.3 Line length

Approx. 70 characters have proven to be ideal for the line length (WWW 1).

4.1.4 Record length

The sentence length for optimal processing is approx. 10 words. This value results from the limits of the short-term memory (WWW 1).

4.1.5 Font

W.o.e lengthens the contours of the brain and tries to establish relationships between objects.
A good font supports the brain in finding a subline or contour. In the case of a serif font, this can mean that the continuation of the serif results in the required underline.
To Identification Bold type is very suitable for important text passages.
The clearer the difference between normal and bold font, the better. However, the width of the individual letters must remain the same.
The letter itself must clearly recognizable be.
For example, with a small e or a, the enclosed white area and the boundary lines should be clearly recognizable.
The shape of the individual letters must be clearly distinguishable. An example of this is v and u.
Due to the features mentioned, a minimum size for letters is specified.

4.1.6 Bold type

Bold type is best suited to emphasize important things.
Care must be taken to deal with it cautiously. Not everything about a text is important.
Only keywords should be shown in bold.

4.1.7 Grouping

The law of proximity (EYS p.21) says that what belongs together in terms of content should also be localized.
This is a good idea box around the text area or the colored background of the text.
In all cases it is also important that the different contents are spatially separated.

4.1.8 Color coding

Colors can have different meanings.
As Signal color draw attention to yourself.
Bright red, yellow and green are examples of this. As a result, they are particularly suited to important things attentive close.
You have to work very carefully here. There is a risk of distracting too much from the rest.
Colors also transport Feelings. The red rose is an expression of love. Blue stands for coolness and aloofness.
Muted colors are perceived as more pleasant than bright colors.
Colors can also help with orientation.
For example, different parts of a website could be distinguished using colors.
A sense of togetherness can also be expressed through colors. A book with several chapters with a concluding summary is conceivable as an example. These summaries could be subtly highlighted in color. This means that all summaries are perceived in a unified manner. Warning notices, on the other hand, could have a subtle red background.

4.1.9 Hierarchies

A structured structure is the prerequisite that we can quickly find our way around content and find information again. A cleverly structured text is a prerequisite for bringing the reader closer to his goal. Only through these little success stories does the attention stay on the text.
The importance of information can also be coded easily without distracting attention.
Visually, indentations and variable text spacing are ideal.

4.2 Semantic Consequences

4.2.1 Change of perspective

It must be taken into account that a text does not have to please the author, but the reader.
The reader often has a goal that he wants to achieve. The text must therefore be relevant to the achievement of the goal.
If the reader does not experience any progress, this can result in reading being broken off.

4.2.1.1 Recognize the motivations of the reader

The motivation of the reader must be recognized. What are the goals?

4.2.3 Relationship aspect

Since we hear a voice while reading, the text always communicates relationship information.
This channel can be used to anchor information more permanently in the reader. A text that touches emotionally is remembered much better.
Even if you are not aware of this, information is transmitted via this channel. A chic designer brochure communicates on the emotional level that the author is great and very self-confident. This can make the reader feel like they are inferior themselves.

5. Conclusion

The brain doesn't seem to obey any simple laws. In some cases, the laws are not applicable to everyone or individual phenomena cannot be explained in the models.
The law of reading, on the other hand, seems to have global validity. It is unclear here, however, whether these laws are learned, or whether we were born in the cradle and are therefore a fundamental working principle of the brain.
In general, there are many problems in brain research. It starts with the philosophical problem of whether one can really look at oneself at all, whether our intellect is sufficient to be able to "decipher" ourselves, continues with the problem of the physical observability of the brain (does stronger blood flow really mean stronger brain activity?) And ends with the problem of inferring brain damage to the healthy brain. I am particularly skeptical about the last point. There are impressive examples of the brain's ability to regenerate (SPIEGEL, p.30).
Ultimately, the researchers are faced with a complexity trap. The brain is made up of 100 billion cells and 100 billion synapses (SPIEGEL p.6). In addition to the previously known world of information exchange via current impulses using the synapses, we are currently looking at information exchange and control in the brain using proteins (SPIEGEL p.26). Under these circumstances, the results found so far appear downright naive.

6. Bibliography

(WWW 1) Dr. Thomas Wirth. Case studies on the text layout. Available at: http://www.kommdesign.de/texte/aufmerk6.htm
(SPIEGEL) SPIEGEL special 4/2003. Deciphering the brain.
(EYS) Michael W. Eysenck. Principles of Cognitive Psychology. 2nd edition 2003. Psychology Press.