Language Can Make the Invisible Visible

As if almost by magic, hearing a word can make the invisible visible, scientists now find.

Normally images are visible even if shown for as little as 10 milliseconds. However, if these pictures are not only flashed very briefly but are also hard to make out to begin with and have a grainy pattern displayed right after them, they often cannot be seen.

However, scientists now find that such imperceptible pictures can be made visible when people hear the name of the object in question.

In experiments where college undergraduates were told the name of a letter before that letter was flashed at them for just 53 milliseconds — images that were hard to make out and followed by a grainy pattern — hearing the name of the letter improved their chances of seeing it by roughly 10 percent. They did not mistakenly see those letters when no letters were there, nor did they see the letters when they were told the wrong letters.

Intriguingly, this effect seemed specific to language. When volunteers were shown a picture of the letter beforehand, this did not make an invisible version of that letter more visible. The researchers suggest that verbal cues might have proved more helpful than visual ones, because the verbal ones recruit an additional part of the brain to bring more brainpower to bear when contemplating the image.

These findings suggest that language can literally change what we see. The researchers speculate that experience with different languages might lead to people seeing the world differently, if only slightly.

"One simple example is that when searching for something — for example, some berries hidden in foliage — a person who speaks a language that has a name for the berry would be at an advantage in finding it than a person who speaks a language that does not have a name for a berry," said researcher Gary Lupyan, a cognitive scientist now at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. "That verbal label can activate the visual representation of the berry more effectively than can be accomplished without using the name."

Lupyan and his colleague Michael Spivey detailed their findings July 7 in the journal PLoS ONE.