Orthographic Coding: Brain Activation for Letters, Symbols, and Digits

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The present experiment investigates the input coding mechanisms of 3 common printed characters: letters, numbers, and symbols. Despite research in this area, it is yet unclear whether the identity of these 3 elements is processed through the same or different brain pathways. In addition, some computational models propose that the position-in-string coding of these elements responds to general flexible mechanisms of the visual system that are not character-specific, whereas others suggest that the position coding of letters responds to specific processes that are different from those that guide the position-in-string assignment of other types of visual objects. Here, in an fMRI study, we manipulated character position and character identity through the transposition or substitution of 2 internal elements within strings of 4 elements. Participants were presented with 2 consecutive visual strings and asked to decide whether they were the same or different. The results showed: 1) that some brain areas responded more to letters than to numbers and vice versa, suggesting that processing may follow different brain pathways; 2) that the left parietal cortex is involved in letter identity, and critically in letter position coding, specifically contributing to the early stages of the reading process; and that 3) a stimulus-specific mechanism for letter position coding is operating during orthographic processing.

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