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Studying the human mind is tough. You can ask people how they think, but they often don’t know. You can scan their brains, but the tools are blunt. You can damage their brains and watch what happens, but they don’t take kindly to that. So even a task as supposedly simple as the first step in reading—recognizing letters on a page—keeps scientists guessing.

Now, psychologists are using artificial intelligence (AI) to probe how our minds actually work. Marco Zorzi, a psychologist at the University of Padua in Italy, used artificial neural networks to show how the brain might “hijack” existing connections in the visual cortex to recognize the letters of the alphabet, he and colleagues reported last month in Nature Human Behaviour. Zorzi spoke with Science about the study and about his other work. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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