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Brain Process Big and Small Words at Different Speeds

Update Date: Sep 27, 2013 04:17 PM EDT

When it comes to reading comprehension, the size of the word matters. According to a new study out of the University of Glasgow in Scotland, how fast the brain processes words depends on the size of the word. The research team, which also included researchers from Kent, Manchester and Oregon, discovered that the brain is capable of processing big words faster than smaller ones.

Before this study, the research team discovered that words that encompass big objects, such as ocean, dinosaur and cathedral were read faster by the brain. Smaller words, such as apple, parasite and cigarette were not processed as quickly. In their latest study, the research team decided to look at abstract words that would either encompass a big thought or a small one. The researchers created a group of big abstract words, which were greed, genius and paradise and a group of small abstract words, which were haste, polite and intimate.

The research team recruited 60 participants for their experiment. The participants were shown a series of words that included both bight and small, concrete and abstract words. These words were also grouped with nonsense, made up words. The total number of words was around 500. The participants were instructed to press one of two buttons that asked the participants to differentiate between real and unreal words. The researchers found that participants were about 20 milliseconds faster at processing real words that described a big object or a big abstract idea.

"It seems that size matters, even when it's abstract and you can't see it," lead investigator, Dr. Sara Sereno, a Reader in the Institute of Neuroscience and Psychology, said. "This might seem live a very short period of time, but it's significant and the effect size is typical for this task."

The lead author, Dr. Bo Yao added, "It turned out that our big concrete and abstract words, like 'shark' and 'panic', tended to be more emotionally arousing than our small concrete and abstract words, like 'acorn' and 'tight'. Our analysis showed that these emotional links played a greater role in the identification of abstract compared to concrete words."

The study was published in PLOS ONE.

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