Brain imaging and spelling champions

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Spelling bees have been a staple of discussion at Language Log:

"Spelling bees and character amnesia" (8/7/13)

"Spelling bee champs" (6/1/14)

"Of toads, modernization, and simplified characters" (8/16/13)

"Il ne parle pas français" (7/23/15)

One of the major subthemes of our debates on this topic has been the dominance of individuals of South Asian (Indian) descent in the spelling bees.  Many possible explanations for their superior performance were proposed (memorization techniques, tradition, family pressure and support, social and cultural models, etc.), but nothing approaching empirical evidence was adduced.

A couple of days ago, Wolfgang Behr called the following paper to my attention:

Neuroimage. 2015 Jul 15. pii: S1053-8119(15)00638-2. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2015.07.027. [Epub ahead of print]

Brains of verbal memory specialists show anatomical differences in language, memory and visual systems.


We studied a group of verbal memory specialists to determine whether intensive oral text memory is associated with structural features of hippocampal and lateral-temporal regions implicated in language processing. Professional Vedic Sanskrit Pandits in India train from childhood for around 10years in an ancient, formalized tradition of oral Sanskrit text memorization and recitation, mastering the exact pronunciation and invariant content of multiple 40,000-100,000 word oral texts. We conducted structural analysis of gray matter density, cortical thickness, local gyrification, and white matter structure, relative to matched controls. We found massive gray matter density and cortical thickness increases in Pandit brains in language, memory and visual systems, including i) bilateral lateral temporal cortices and ii) the anterior cingulate cortex and the hippocampus, regions associated with long and short-term memory. Differences in hippocampal morphometry matched those previously documented for expert spatial navigators and individuals with good verbal working memory. The findings provide unique insight into the brain organization implementing formalized oral knowledge systems.

Copyright © 2015. Published by Elsevier Inc.


Cortical thickness; Diffusion tensor imaging; Gray matter density; Hippocampus; Language; Memory; Plasticity

I have the pdf if anybody wants it, but it should be readily available from these (here, here) and other research gates that can be located by googling on the title of the paper.

As soon as I read the paper, I thought of the Indian-American spelling bee champions and wondered whether similar imaging as that described here for reciters of Vedic oral texts might reveal significant differences in the brains of students who train assiduously for the spelling bees.

This would be a kind of pumping iron, but of neurons rather than muscles.


  1. Levantine said,

    August 8, 2015 @ 2:32 am

    Would you expect the brains of spelling-bee champions who are not Indian-American to reveal similar differences, or are you suggesting that a person's Indianness has a direct bearing on the phenomenon in question?

  2. Victor Mair said,

    August 8, 2015 @ 7:45 am


    "Would you expect the brains of spelling-bee champions who are not Indian-American to reveal similar differences"


    "…are you suggesting that a person's Indianness has a direct bearing on the phenomenon in question?"


  3. Robert said,

    August 11, 2015 @ 6:28 am

    There is also this study on London taxi drivers (who must memorize routes through London) and changes occurring to their brains, as seen in MRI scans:

  4. Michael Carpenter said,

    August 15, 2015 @ 12:35 am

    It's interesting to observe that South Asians tend to dominate in spelling bees, while individuals of East Asian descend tend to dominate in mathematical competitions (both in the United States and internationally). East Asian countries have won the top ranking for eight of the last ten International Mathematical Olympiads (seven times by China, once by South Korea, once by the United States, and once by Russia). I wonder what factors lead ethnic groups to favor certain types of competitions. Is it related to culture? Language? Do East Asians consider mathematical competitions more prestigious? Are South Asians more interested in spelling bees? Or is it just a coincidence?

    For a similar discussion, see:

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