Read the following words in your head:
Though it may be happening on a subconscious level, all these words share an important feature: They all evoke a sensation or perceptual experience in the mind of the reader. Incense brings to mind a particular scent; lemon, a tart taste in the mouth; and kick activates a part of the brain responsible for motor behavior. Research suggests that these mental reactions occur very quickly—within fractions of a second—after reading a word.
In the Eye Movement and Reading Lab at Wesleyan, Barbara Juhasz, assistant professor of psychology, assistant professor of neuroscience and behavior, studies how readers recognize, understand and catalogue words in their mental dictionaries. Since 2006, when she first arrived at Wesleyan, Juhasz has been interested in understanding how words produce a certain sensory experience when read. She created an index, called the sensory experience rating (SER) scale, to describe the extent to which a word evokes a sensory and/or perceptual experience in the mind of a reader. The SER scale runs from 1 to 7 — with 1 indicating no sensory experience, and 7 referring to a high sensory experience evoked by a word—and can be applied to nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs alike.
Juhasz says she was moved to investigate the sensory experience associated with words while working with a student, Sarah Taylor ’07. Taylor was interested in synesthesia, a condition in which one sense is perceived in conjunction with another sense. The most common form of synesthesia is associating letters or numbers with a particular color (for example, visualizing the number 4 as being printed in the color purple). Juhasz and Taylor’s discussions on synesthesia led them to consider how people might associate different sensations with words, in general.
Juhasz also wondered how the sensory experience rating of a word related to the speed at which a reader processes that word. Through past research, Juhasz and others in her field have identified certain characteristics that correlate with the speed at which readers process words. For example, adult readers tend to process words acquired earlier in life more quickly—even after controlling for how frequently they’ve read the word over the years. Words that easily create a mental image are also processed more quickly.
Juhasz and collaborators conducted a large study on nearly 3,000 monosyllabic words. Participants in the study were asked to rate the words on the 1-7 SER scale. Lexical decision reaction times, or the time it takes to decide whether a word is real or not were then examined for these words. The study found that a word’s SER rating predicted lexical decision reaction times after 23 other variables known to affect reaction times were considered. In other words, the readers recognized a word like lemon, which produced a strong physical reaction, more quickly than a word like box, which has little sensory response associated with it. Juhasz published these results in 2011 in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology.
More recently, Juhasz and colleague Melvin Yap from the University of Singapore conducted a new study, extending the investigation to 3,000 new words, this time with two syllables. According to a this new study, published online on August 31 in The Psychonomic Society’s Behavior Research Methods journal, “…multisyllabic words vastly outnumber monosyllabic ones in the English language, and processing multisyllabic words implicates additional processes such as syllabification and stress assignment.” The words they chose for the study had also been recently rated for “imageability” and “age of acquisition.”
This most recent study confirmed that a word’s SER rating is useful in predicting lexical decision reaction times. By making these ratings available to the psycholinguistic community in the new paper, Juhasz says she hopes researchers will use brain imaging and Evoked Response Potential tests, using EEGs, to see what happens in the brain of a reader when processing high sensory words.
Juhasz also hopes to conduct additional research examining how SER affects reading and word recognition performance.
She notes, “There is a correlation between SER and the age at which a word is acquired. Words that are acquired earlier in childhood have a strong link to sensory/perceptual systems. An interesting question for further research is whether stressing the sensory/perceptual aspects of a word during vocabulary instruction in school will result in faster processing of the word later in adulthood.”