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Time to understand pictures and words


WHEN an object such as a chair is presented visually, or is represented by a line drawing, a spoken word, or a written word, the initial stages in the process leading to understanding are clearly different in each case. There is disagreement, however, about whether those early stages lead to a common abstract representation in memory, the idea of a chair1–4, or to two separate representations, one verbal (common to spoken and written words), and the other image-like5. The first view claims that words and images are associated with ideas, but the underlying representation of an idea is abstract. According to the second view, the verbal representation alone is directly associated with abstract information about an object (for example, its superordinate category: furniture). Concrete perceptual information (for example, characteristic shape, colour or size) is associated with the imaginal representation. Translation from one representation to the other takes time, on the second view, which accounts for the observation that naming a line drawing takes longer than naming (reading aloud) a written word6,7. Here we confirm that naming a drawing of an object takes much longer than reading its name, but we show that deciding whether the object is in a given category such as ‘furniture’ takes slightly less time for a drawing than for a word, a result that seems to be inconsistent with the second view.

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POTTER, M., FAULCONER, B. Time to understand pictures and words. Nature 253, 437–438 (1975).

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