Holistic but with reduced right-hemisphere involvement: The case of dyslexia in Chinese character recognition


Recent research on visual object recognition has suggested that the right hemisphere can engage either holistic or part-based processing depending on whether the recognition relies on configural (exact distances among features) or featural information, respectively. Consistent with this finding, expert Chinese reading has been marked by a left-side bias (an indication of right-hemisphere lateralization) with decreased holistic processing (as assessed using the composite paradigm) due to its reliance on featural information. Here we examine two common perceptual expertise phenomena in object recognition – holistic processing and left-side bias – of Chinese characters in adolescents with developmental dyslexia and matched controls. We found that those with dyslexia showed stronger holistic processing, a weaker left-side bias, and worse performance in Chinese character dictation than controls. This was in contrast to Limited writers (proficient readers with limited writing experience) reported in Tso, Au, and Hsiao (Psychological Science, 25, 1757–1767, 2014), who showed stronger holistic processing and worse dictation performance, but the same level of left-side bias as controls. This result demonstrated two different perceptual mechanisms underlying holistic processing: Limited writers’ holistic processing may be due to difficulties in de-emphasizing configural information unimportant to Chinese characters, whereas readers with dyslexia may have deficits selectively attending to character components to form appropriate part-based representations in the right hemisphere.

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Data availability

The data that support the findings of this study are available from the corresponding author Dr. Ricky Tso upon reasonable request. Please contact Dr. Ricky Tso through rvytso@eduhk.hk. None of the experiments was preregistered.


  1. 1.

    Analysis of a Chinese character database suggests that about 80% of characters are of either top-bottom or left-right configurations (Hsiao & Shillcock, 2006). Hence, left-right configurations were added in this study to have a better representation of the Chinese lexicon. See Liu, Chuk, Yeh, and Hsiao (2016).

  2. 2.

    At the moment, there is no standardized test or normed test to assess literacy performance for adolescents and adults in Hong Kong aged 15.5 years and above. The literacy test stimuli in this study were obtained from HKT-P(III), and had been tested previously in a pilot study to be able to differentiate between college students with dyslexia and those without. While the reading performance for both groups of participants were high, the scores for dictation, lexical decisions, and RAN were able to effectively differentiate students with and without dyslexia. These results echoed those of other studies on dyslexia in the Chinese population that have suggested persistent writing difficulties associated with RAN and orthographic awareness as they progress to adolescence and adulthood (Chan et al., 2006; Chung et al., 2011; Chung, Lo, & Mcbride, 2018).

  3. 3.

    Note that in contrast to the partial design in which holistic processing is measured by alignment effect (i.e., the performance discrepancy between aligned and misaligned conditions; e.g., Hole, 1994; Robbins & McKone, 2007), the complete composite design measures holistic processing by congruency effect indicated by the performance difference between the congruent and incongruent trials without a misalignment condition (see Gauthier & Bukach, 2007; Hsiao & Cottrell, 2009; Tso et al., 2014). Hsiao and Cottrell (2009) showed that the congruency effect observed in Chinese character processing disappeared when character halves were misaligned, consistent with the current results as well as the literature on face and object recognition (see Richler, Tanaka, Brown, & Gauthier, 2008).

  4. 4.

    To examine which literacy-related variables could better explain the difference in HP and LSB between the dyslexics and controls, we used ANCOVA to examine the congruency effect in RT. With age, Raven’s score, and all the literacy-related variables (RAN, Chinese word-reading, 1-min word reading, dictation, and lexical decision performances) entered as covariates, a significant difference was still found for HP, F(1, 38) = 12.848, p = .001. and LSB, F(1,38) = 4.805, p = .036. These effects suggested that the observed differences between dyslexics and controls in HP and LSB were better explained by their diagnostic condition, though they were in concurrence with the differences in dictation, lexical decision, and RAN.

    In a separate analysis, we found that HP and LSB were not significantly correlated in the participants, r = -.092, n.s. (Table S1 in Supplementary Information). While computational studies have shown that HP and LSB are negatively correlated in recognition tasks that purely depend on featural information (e.g., Hsiao & Galmar, 2016), real-life visual stimuli naturally embed both featural and configural differences. Although the recognition can depend more on either featural or configural information, typically both types of information are used. Thus, a strong correlation between HP and LSB using real-life stimuli is not always observed. Indeed, in Hsiao and Galmar’s (2016) computational study, when using real face stimuli, LSB and HP did not correlate with each other, consistent their human data. In the current study, while HP did not correlate with the Chinese literacy measures, LSB was associated with lexical decision performance. This result suggests that some form of RH processing (which may be related configural information) is associated with the knowledge of legality of Chinese orthography, but not the ability to selectively attend to a component as measured in HP. This result also again suggests that HP and LSB are separate processes that do not always go together; it depends on the task demands (Hsiao & Galmar, 2016).


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This research was supported by internal funding from EDUHK (project code: RG105/2016-2017R, DRG04244, RG64/2017-2018R, & PPRCG04297 to R.V. Tso). We are also grateful to the Research Grant Council of Hong Kong (project code: 17402814 to J.H. Hsiao).

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Correspondence to Ricky Van Yip Tso or Janet Hui-wen Hsiao.

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Tso, R.V.Y., Chan, R.T.C. & Hsiao, J.H. Holistic but with reduced right-hemisphere involvement: The case of dyslexia in Chinese character recognition. Psychon Bull Rev 27, 553–562 (2020). https://doi.org/10.3758/s13423-020-01721-y

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  • Perceptual expertise
  • Chinese-character recognition
  • Holistic processing
  • Dyslexia
  • Left-side bias