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The Cultural Brain Group

NEWS: Science Advances paper press release:

Even learning to read in your thirties profoundly transforms brain networks


Human cognition, and therefore the brain, is a product of both the cultural environment in which we are immersed and our genetic makeup. We explore how cultural inventions like written words, numbers, music, and belief systems shape the mind and brain from the beginning of our lives. Looking at Literacy, Analog Cognition, and Prediction offers us a window into the culturally-shaped mind. Diverse groups, such as illiterates in India, young children, individuals with reading disorders and highly educated individuals take part in our studies. We use behavioural measures, functional and structural neuroimaging techniques, and computational modelling. In essence, we ask to what extent culture determines what it means to think as a human.


Group members

Miguel Borges (PhD Student)

Saoradh Favier (PhD Student)

Gabriela Garrido (PhD Student)

Florian Hintz (Postdoc)

Francesco Mantegna (Intern)

Markus Ostarek (PhD Student)

Alastair Smith (Postdoc)


1. Literacy 

The invention of reading and writing or music notation is, on an evolutionary scale, just a recent spark. For homo sapiens the literate mind represents a tiny fraction of human existence. Even today more than one-fifth of adults are unable to read the language they speak. However, almost everything we know about the human brain and mind has been learnt from examining the literate brain. For script literacy to develop the ability to process complex orthographic patterns must connect with existing language processing systems, for music literacy the ability to process complex music notation must connect with existing music processing systems. We examine this process, how a pre-literate mind/brain becomes literate, and how variation in script, language (or music), or in the pre-literate brain itself, may affect this process.



Some recent publications


Huettig, F., Lachmann, T., Reis, A., & Petersson, K. M. (in press). Distinguishing cause from effect - Many deficits associated with developmental dyslexia may be a consequence of reduced and suboptimal reading experience. Language, Cognition and NeuroscienceAdvance online publication. doi:10.1080/23273798.2017.1348528.

Huettig, F., & Mishra, R. K. (2014). How literacy acquisition affects the illiterate mind - A critical examination of theories and evidence. Language and Linguistics Compass8(10), 401-427.


Smith, A., Monaghan, P., & Huettig, F. (2014). Literacy effects on language and vision: Emergent effects from an amodal shared resource (ASR) computational model. Cognitive Psychology75, 28-54.

Smith, A., Monaghan, P., & Huettig, F. (2014). Examining strains and symptoms of the ‘Literacy Virus’: The effects of orthographic transparency on phonological processing in a connectionist model of reading. In P. Bello, M. Guarini, M. McShane, & B. Scassellati (Eds.), Proceedings of the 36th Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society (CogSci 2014). Austin, TX: Cognitive Science Society.


Huettig, F., & Brouwer, S. (2015). Delayed anticipatory spoken language processing in adults with dyslexia - Evidence from eye-tracking. Dyslexia21(2), 97-122. 

Huettig, F., Singh, N., & Mishra, R. K. (2011). Language-mediated visual orienting behavior in low and high literates. Frontiers in Psychology2, 285.

Mani, N., & Huettig, F. (2014). Word reading skill predicts anticipation of upcoming spoken language input: a study of children developing proficiency in reading. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology126, 264-279.

Mishra, R. K., Singh, N., Pandey, A., & Huettig, F. (2012). Spoken language-mediated anticipatory eye movements are modulated by reading ability: Evidence from Indian low and high literates. Journal of Eye Movement Research, 5(1): 3, 1-10.

Olivers, C. N. L., Huettig, F., Singh, J. P., & Mishra, R. K. (2014). The influence of literacy on visual search. Visual Cognition, 21, 74-101.

Skeide, M. A., Kumar, U., Mishra, R. K., Tripathi, V. N., Guleria, A., Singh, J. P., Eisner, F., & Huettig, F. (2017). Learning to read alters cortico-subcortical crosstalk in the visual system of illiterates. Science Advances, 5(3): e1602612.


2. Analog Cognition

Cultural inventions often require multimodal mapping processes, for instance when reading language or music arbitrary visual script characters must be mapped onto the corresponding units of spoken language or music. Learning such mappings impacts on our multimodal brains. We investigate the consequences of cultural inventions on brain and cognition as a tool to examine underlying processing dynamics from sensorimotor systems to high-level integration systems. One possibility is that we use the brain's basic sensory and motor systems for language comprehension, a process often called simulation but that we prefer to call analogue cognition as the idea is that language directly engages these modality-specific systems rather than duplicating or ‘re-enacting’ events in the ‘outside world’.

For example, some of our group's experimental data suggest that spoken words can rapidly activate low-level category-specific visual representations that affect the mere detection of a stimulus, i.e. what we see. We have also observed that visual noise interferes more with concrete spoken word processing than abstract spoken word processing, but only when the task required visual information to be accessed.


Some recent publications


Huettig, F., Mishra, R. K., & Olivers, C. N. (2012). Mechanisms and representations of language-mediated visual attention. Frontiers in Psychology, 2, 394.

Huettig, F., Olivers, C. N. L., & Hartsuiker, R. J. (2011). Looking, language, and memory: Bridging research from the visual world and visual search paradigms. Acta Psychologica, 137, 138-150.


Smith, A., Monaghan, P., & Huettig, F. (2017). The multimodal nature of spoken word processing in the visual world: Testing the predictions of alternative models of multimodal integration. Journal of Memory and Language, 93, 276-303.


De Groot, F., Huettig, F., & Olivers, C. N. L. (2016). When meaning matters: The temporal dynamics of semantic influences on visual attention. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 42(2), 180-196. 

Johnson, E., McQueen, J. M., & Huettig, F. (2011). Toddlers’ language-mediated visual search: They need not have the words for it. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 64, 1672-1682.

McQueen, J. M., & Huettig, F. (2014). Interference of spoken word recognition through phonological priming from visual objects and printed words. Attention, Perception & Psychophysics, 76, 190-200.

Ostarek, M., & Huettig, F. (2017). Spoken words can make the invisible visible – Testing the involvement of low-level visual representations in spoken word processing. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 43, 499-508.

Ostarek, M., & Huettig, F. (2017). A task-dependent causal role for low-level visual processes in spoken word comprehension. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition43(8), 1215-1224.

Rommers, J., Meyer, A. S., & Huettig, F. (2013). Object shape and orientation do not routinely influence performance during language processing. Psychological Science, 24, 2218-2225.


De Groot, F., Koelewijn, T., Huettig, F., & Olivers, C. N. L. (2016). A stimulus set of words and pictures matched for visual and semantic similarity. Journal of Cognitive Psychology, 28(1), 1-15.

Huettig, F., Rommers, J., & Meyer, A. S. (2011). Using the visual world paradigm to study language processing: A review and critical evaluation. Acta Psychologica, 137, 151-171.


3. Prediction

It is often claimed that prediction is a (or the) fundamental principle of human cognition and brain functioning. Research into language processing should be particularly illuminating for testing this claim because linguists have traditionally argued that prediction plays only a minor role in language understanding. This is because of the vast possibility space available to a language user as each word is encountered. We investigate prediction with a special focus on linguistic, individual, and cultural variation.

For example, some of our group's experimental studies show that individual differences in working memory, reading ability, and processing speed predict anticipatory spoken language processing in the visual world. Our group's experimental data also strongly suggest that multiple mechanisms simultaneously influence anticipation of upcoming linguistic input and that only such a dynamic approach to prediction can capture the language user’s prowess at predictive language processing.

Recent publications


Huettig, F. (2015). Four central questions about prediction in language processing. Brain Research, 1626, 118-135.

Huettig, F., & Mani, N. (2016). Is prediction necessary to understand language? Probably not. Language, Cognition and Neuroscience, 31(1), 19-31.


Bobb, S., Huettig, F., & Mani, N. (2015). Predicting visual information during sentence processing: Toddlers activate an object's shape before it is mentioned. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 151, 51-64.

Hintz, F., Meyer, A. S., & Huettig, F. (2016). Encouraging prediction during production facilitates subsequent comprehension: Evidence from interleaved object naming in sentence context and sentence reading. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 69, 1056-1063.

Hintz, F., Meyer, A. S., & Huettig, F. (2017). Predictors of verb-mediated anticipatory eye movements in the visual world. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 43(9), 1352-1374.

Huettig, F., & Janse, E. (2016). Individual differences in working memory and processing speed predict anticipatory spoken language processing in the visual world. Language, Cognition and Neuroscience, 31(1), 80-93.

Mani, N., & Huettig, F. (2012). Prediction during language processing is a piece of cake - but only for skilled producers. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 38(4), 843-847.

Mani, N., Daum, M., & Huettig, F. (2016). “Pro-active” in many ways: Developmental evidence for a dynamic pluralistic approach to prediction. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology69(11), 2189-2201.

Rommers, J., Meyer, A. S., Praamstra, P., & Huettig, F. (2013). The contents of predictions in sentence comprehension: Activation of the shape of objects before they are referred to. Neuropsychologia, 51(3), 437-447.

Rommers, J., Meyer, A. S., & Huettig, F. (2015). Verbal and nonverbal predictors of language-mediated anticipatory eye movements. Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics, 77(3), 720-730.


Last checked 2017-09-20

Falk Huettig

Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics
PO Box 310
6500 AH Nijmegen
The Netherlands