Viewing of single words produces a cognitively complex mental state in which anticipation, emotional responses, visual perceptual analysis, and activation of orthographic representations are all occurring. Previous PET studies have produced conflicting results, perhaps due to the conflation of these separate processes or the presence of subtle differences in stimulus material and methodology. A PET study of 10 normal individuals was carried out using the bolus H215O intravenous injection technique to examine components of processing of passively viewed words. Subjects viewed blocks of random-letter strings or abstract, concrete, or emotional words (words with positive or negative emotional salience). Baseline conditions were either passive viewing of plus signs or an anticipatory state (viewing plus signs after being warned to expect words or random letters to appear imminently). All words (and to a lesser extent the random letters) produced robust activation of cerebral blood flow in the left posterior temporal lobe, in addition to bilateral occipital activation. Furthermore, emotional words produced activation in orbital and midline frontal structures. Further activation in the left orbital frontal gyrus, the left inferior temporal gyrus, the left caudate nucleus, the anterior cingulate, and the cerebellum could be ascribed to the anticipatory state. This pattern of activity suggests that the occipital regions are recruited for visual-perceptual analysis of words, and the left temporal lobe represents the neural substrate for the orthographic lexicon. In addition, emotionally relevant material produces further processing in limbic brain structures of the frontal lobes. Detailed analysis of the task therefore substantially clarifies the neuroanatomic basis of single-word processing.