Because your brain has limited processing capacity, you cannot comprehend the text on this page all at once. In fact, skilled readers cannot even recognize just two words at once. We measured how the visual areas of the brain respond to pairs of words while participants attended to one word or tried to divide attention between both. We discovered that a single word-selective region in left ventral occipitotemporal cortex processes both words in parallel. The parallel streams of information then converge at a bottleneck in an adjacent, more anterior word-selective region. This result reveals the functional significance of subdivisions within the brain’s reading circuitry and offers a compelling explanation for a profound limit on human perception.Abstract
In most environments, the visual system is confronted with many relevant objects simultaneously. That is especially true during reading. However, behavioral data demonstrate that a serial bottleneck prevents recognition of more than one word at a time. We used fMRI to investigate how parallel spatial channels of visual processing converge into a serial bottleneck for word recognition. Participants viewed pairs of words presented simultaneously. We found that retinotopic cortex processed the two words in parallel spatial channels, one in each contralateral hemisphere. Responses were higher for attended than for ignored words but were not reduced when attention was divided. We then analyzed two word-selective regions along the occipitotemporal sulcus (OTS) of both hemispheres (subregions of the visual word form area, VWFA). Unlike retinotopic regions, each word-selective region responded to words on both sides of fixation. Nonetheless, a single region in the left hemisphere (posterior OTS) contained spatial channels for both hemifields that were independently modulated by selective attention. Thus, the left posterior VWFA supports parallel processing of multiple words. In contrast, activity in a more anterior word-selective region in the left hemisphere (mid OTS) was consistent with a single channel, showing (i) limited spatial selectivity, (ii) no effect of spatial attention on mean response amplitudes, and (iii) sensitivity to lexical properties of only one attended word. Therefore, the visual system can process two words in parallel up to a late stage in the ventral stream. The transition to a single channel is consistent with the observed bottleneck in behavior.