Seeing the meaning: Top-down effects on letter identification

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Most models of reading agree that visual word recognition is underpinned by a highly interactive network in which both bottom–up and top–down processes contribute. What remains unknown is whether evidence of top–down effects upon letter processing are restricted to word-form level information, or whether meaning-level information also plays a role. Here we sought to investigate top–down semantic influences upon letter detection using semantic manipulations of real word imageability and semantic priming, as well as a manipulation of nonword orthographic and phonological composition which varied degree of similarity to real words. A continuous adaptive staircase procedure was used, allowing us to assess the exposure duration needed for accurate letter perception in different stimulus types. Results revealed that in terms of both exposure duration and decision reaction times, words showed an advantage over pseudohomophones and pseudowords, which in turn showed advantages over consonant strings. High imageability words were processed more efficiently than low imageability words, both in terms of the exposure duration required for accurate letter identification and also decision reaction times. The presence of a related as opposed to unrelated semantic prime significantly shortened exposure duration, but also lengthened decision reaction times. This inhibitory semantic priming effect in reaction time was attributed to the interference at the decision stage by stronger activation of the prime letters in the case of related relative to unrelated trials. Taken together, the present results establish for the first time that the semantic dimensions of imageability and semantic priming exert significant effects on letter identification, indicating meaning-level influences on the very earliest stages of written word recognition.
Original languageEnglish
JournalFrontiers in Psychology
Issue number322
Publication statusPublished - 20 Apr 2017


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