Deep generative learning of location-invariant visual word recognition

Maria Grazia Di Bono, Marco Zorzi

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


It is widely believed that orthographic processing implies an approximate, flexible coding of letter position, as shown by relative-position and transposition priming effects in visual word recognition. These findings have inspired alternative proposals about the representation of letter position, ranging from noisy coding across the ordinal positions to relative position coding based on open bigrams. This debate can be cast within the broader problem of learning location-invariant representations of written words, that is, a coding scheme abstracting the identity and position of letters (and combinations of letters) from their eye-centered (i.e., retinal) locations. We asked whether location-invariance would emerge from deep unsupervised learning on letter strings and what type of intermediate coding would emerge in the resulting hierarchical generative model. We trained a deep network with three hidden layers on an artificial dataset of letter strings presented at five possible retinal locations. Though word-level information (i.e., word identity) was never provided to the network during training, linear decoding from the activity of the deepest hidden layer yielded near-perfect accuracy in location-invariant word recognition. Conversely, decoding from lower layers yielded a large number of transposition errors. Analyses of emergent internal representations showed that word selectivity and location invariance increased as a function of layer depth. Word-tuning and location-invariance were found at the level of single neurons, but there was no evidence for bigram coding. Finally, the distributed internal representation of words at the deepest layer showed higher similarity to the representation elicited by the two exterior letters than by other combinations of two contiguous letters, in agreement with the hypothesis that word edges have special status. These results reveal that the efficient coding of written words-which was the model's learning objective-is largely based on letter-level information.

Original languageEnglish
Article numberArticle 635
JournalFrontiers in Psychology
Issue numberSEP
Publication statusPublished - 2013


  • Connectionist modeling
  • Deep unsupervised learning
  • Hierarchical generative models
  • Open-bigrams
  • Orthographic coding

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychology(all)


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