November 23, 2020

A general-purpose mechanism of visual feature association at the core of word learning

Writing systems are a recent cultural invention, which makes it unlikely that specific cognitive mechanisms have developed through selective pressure for reading itself. Instead, reading might capitalize on evolutionary older mechanisms that originally supported other tasks. Accordingly, animals such as baboons can be trained to perform visual word recognition. This suggests that the visual mechanisms supporting reading might be phylogenetically old and domain-general. Here we propose that if the human reading system relies on domain-general visual mechanisms, effects that are typically found within the domain of reading should also be observable with non-orthographic visual stimuli. To test this hypothesis, we systematically tested different types of visual material with the same experimental design. Subjects were passively familiarized with a set of composite visual items, and then tested in an oddball paradigm for their ability to detect novel stimuli. Some of these novel stimuli shared their statistical structure with the familiar items, and were found to be hard to detect in two experiments using strings of letter-like symbols; this replicates the well-known, and supposedly reading-specific, bigram effect. Crucially, in two further experiments we show that the same effect emerges with made-up, 3D objects and sinusoidal gratings. The effect size was equivalent across experiments, despite the use of radically different stimuli. These data suggest that a fundamental mechanism behind visual word learning also supports the learning of other visual stimuli, implying that such mechanism is general-purpose. This mechanism would enable the statistical learning of regularities in the visual environment.

 bioRxiv Subject Collection: Neuroscience

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