We’ve come to expect a daily dose of Internet spam—and of intriguing comments and jokes from friends (today I was electronically asked if Lipton Tea employees take coffee breaks, and whatever happened to Preparations A through G?).
The terribly misspelled paragraph below has similarly been zipping around the Internet recently. Perhaps you’ve received it and wondered how you could read it so easily.
Aoccdrnig to rseerach at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a total mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Amzanig huh?
PS: Hwo’d yuo lkie to run tihs by yuor sepll ckehcer?
A regular reader of this column asked me to explain the phenomenon, and so I thought I’d explain it to all curious BrainConnection readers.
The point of this line of research is that proficient readers read most words (except very long ones) principally through the first and last letters and a rapid recognition of the general shape and content of the entire word. That’s why we typically read misspelled words with no trouble.
We can also easily read both cursive and block writing, different fonts (including fonts we rarely see), and words with mixed capital and small letters. We also easily distinguish between words like eight and sight that have only one subtle spelling difference but are pronounced very differently.
Written language is processed in about a dozen different brain areas (and principally in the left hemisphere in most people). Written language must be explicitly taught, and is more difficult to master than speech, which children effortlessly master with limited explicit instruction. For example, when did you teach your children prepositional phrases or how to form plurals?
One explanation for the greater difficulty of learning to read and write is that written language is only a few thousand years old, not enough time for innate systems for processing reading/writing to evolve. The neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene (2003) suggests that the reason we can learn to read and write is that written language makes use of visual recognition capabilities that are innate. The basic brain structures we use to recognize words also exist in the visual systems of primates, where they are used to recognize important objects—dangers and opportunities.
For example, a monkey must be able to quickly recognize a lion. Although each lion is slightly different from other lions, all have a characteristic lion face, and it is that configuration (a sort of cartoon lion with only the essential details) that the monkey’s object recognition system tunes into. Further, the lion might be looking up/down/sideways/etc., so the object recognition system must be able to recognize the conceptual lion in any possible positional variation.
Nature contains many basic recurring shapes such as ovals and triangles that combine to form more complex objects such as a face. To natural object forms such as trees and stones that we instantly recognize regardless of the variations, we humans have added many cultural icons—such as a Nike swoosh, a McDonald’s arch, and various traffic symbols. All contain only the minimum amount of information needed for rapid recognition (a phenomenon that cartoonists also exploit in their work).
Dehaene argues with considerable research support that we simply adapted this existing innate object recognition system to written language when it entered into human culture. For example, draw a capital A with the horizontal line extending a bit beyond the two diagonal lines, and place a couple dots above the horizontal line within the triangle. Invert the drawing and it’s a cartoon bull. Our letter A derives from the Greek alpha, which emerged out of the ancient Semitic word for bull (alf). As suggested above our brain has no difficulty in recognizing a shape such as A whether it’s right side up, upside down, or sideways.
The rest of our alphabet has similar ancient beginnings in basic natural line segments and shapes. English letters are composed of single or combined vertical, horizontal, diagonal, and curved lines that our brain’s visual system innately recognizes—and that our language system learns to associate with phonemes in elementary school.
Rapid object recognition depends more on the outer shape of something than on the inner (often quite variant) details—and something that works for an object also works nicely for a word composed of two outer and several inner letters.
Recall that you easily read According when it was spelled as Aoccdrnig above, but the same letters spelled as Cacordign would be unreadable, even though only the first and final two letters of the word are reversed.
By connecting innately meaningless sounds to innately meaningless lines within our incredibly inventive brain, we developed a marvelously meaningful language-driven civilization.
But alas, we didn’t follow up on this brain property and invent a computer that could similarly recognize the external essence of an email address and ignore incorrect internal letter sequences. My most recent email message was rejected because although the first and final letters on the address were correct, two internal letters were reversed. I corrected the error and resent the message—feeling a bit superior.