Frontiers

Mind's Eye View

Penn psychologists identify neural correlates of visual and verbal cognitive styles.
May 2009
In the lab of Class of 1965 Endowed Term Professor of Psychology Sharon Thompson-Schill, the range of topics being studied is fairly broad, but one overarching theme, she explains, is an attempt to better understand differences between people.

“Roughly speaking, you can divide psychology researchers into two groups: those who seek to characterize the ‘average’ mind, and those who try to understand variations from that average,” says Thompson-Schill. “The study of individual differences in my lab represents a small but growing movement in the field of cognitive neuroscience to bridge the gap between these two approaches.”

One scientific question that has long fascinated Thompson-Schill concerns the ways in which individuals’ experiences in the world affect their knowledge of common objects. For example, is one person’s concept of a cup the same as someone else’s? “We have been gathering evidence that our brain does not store concepts in one discrete place,” she says, “but rather that our conceptual knowledge is built out of lots of pieces. Visual areas of our brain ‘know’ what things look like; motor areas of our brain ‘know’ what we do with them, and so on. So it’s natural to ask how variations in sensory and motor experiences in the world affect our conceptual knowledge.”

"David is asking how variations in brain responses alter how we interact with the world. That is, if someone has a 'visual learning style,' how does that impact the way they perceive and remember visual and verbal stimuli?" - Sharon Thompson-Schill

Working in Thompson-Schill’s lab, postdoctoral fellow David Kraemer is conducting research that approaches this same issue from the other direction. “David is asking how variations in brain responses alter how we interact with the world,” says Thompson-Schill. “That is, if someone has a ‘visual learning style,’ how does that impact the way they perceive and remember visual and verbal stimuli?”

Kraemer is the lead author of a recent Penn study that found that those who consider themselves visual learners have a tendency to convert linguistically presented information into visual mental representations, while those who identify as verbal learners have a tendency to convert pictorial information into linguistic representations.

“This study was partly motivated by the idea that people often describe themselves as visual or verbal learners,” explains Kraemer, “and the educational community seems to have picked up this idea and gone full steam ahead. But so far theories of cognitive styles have been based largely on anecdotal information. So we thought it was reasonable to take a step back and say, ‘OK, how are these things assessed? What do they actually mean in relationship to established findings from cognitive neuroscience? If this is a valid distinction, what would the brain basis be, and what would it mean?’”

Kraemer and his colleagues used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology to scan subjects’ brains while they performed a novel psychological task involving pictures that could be easily named and words that could be easily imagined.  They found that the more strongly an individual identified with a visual cognitive style, the more they activated the visual cortex when reading words. Conversely, fMRI scans also showed that the more strongly an individual identified with a verbal cognitive style, the more activity they exhibited in a region of the brain associated with phonological cognition when faced with a picture.

Kraemer’s study—co-authored by Thompson-Schill and Lauren Rosenberg, C’08—was published in the Journal of Neuroscience and was presented at the 2009 Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Neuroscience Society.