Brain Oddities: Reading Rainbow

Brain oddities

Yesterday, a coworker showed me an interesting internet phenomenon that I’d seen some years before but had completely forgotten. You may recognize it from when it began circulating via email in 2003 (you know, those chain emails that threatened horrible things if you didn't forward them):

Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch 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 in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl 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.

I, like most people who read this, found it incredibly interesting, and decided to investigate further. It turns out that, although this passage holds a few grains of truth, there are a few substantial errors.

The first issue with the passage is that, according to an actual language researcher at Cambridge University, while there are several groups at the school studying language, this particular topic was not being investigated at the time of the passage’s release. The second problem is its claim that the middle letters can be in any order without affecting reading comprehension—this is only partially true. Take, for example, the following sentences:

1. Big ccunoil tax ineesacrs tihs yaer hvae seezueqd the inmcoes of mnay pneosenirs

2. A dootcr has aimttded the magltheuansr of a tageene ceacnr pintaet who deid aetfr a hatospil durg blender

You probably found these two sentences much more difficult to read than the first example (if you got stuck, you can check the translations at the bottom of this post). There are several potential reasons why the “Cambridge University” passage is easier to read: firstly, the words in the passage still largely maintain the shape of the correct word; secondly, the distance between where the letters actually belong and where they have been displaced is usually small. For example, the “bridge" in “Cambridge” (“Cmabrigde”) remains largely unchanged, so it’s easy for us to infer the entire word based on our recognition of “bridge.”

Although we usually do not read letter-by-letter, as claimed in the passage, we also do not necessarily process each word as a whole. There are a variety of factors that allow us to read efficiently. As mentioned above, one theory holds that we attend to the shapes of words (that is, letter placement) as part of our visual processing. Additionally, one-, two-, and three-letter words are often skipped entirely, so our reading is not as linear as one might think:

Figure5(Credit: Kevin Larson)

The arrows represent saccades, or short eye movements, analyzed with an eye-tracking device. The eye skips over the small words and, in the case of the last sentence, sometimes doubles back. Another interesting thing to note is that when we read,

Top of letters

Bottom of letters

You probably deciphered the first half of that to say “we focus on the top of the letters,” but you probably couldn’t tell (apart from context) that the second half says “rather than the bottom.” This could either be an efficiency tactic or a by-product of the fact that the top halves of letters appear to be more distinctive than the bottom halves.

Unfortunately, I was unable to find any studies that shed light on the neural underpinnings of reading comprehension tactics. But discovering that reading is a much more complicated process than I thought made me feel marginally better about the shame I endured when stumbling through passages that I was forced to read aloud in grade school. I’m gald thsoe dyas are gnoe.

–Caitlin Schneider

Translation Answers:

1. Big council tax increases this year have squeezed the incomes of many pensioners.

2. A doctor has admitted the manslaughter of a teenage cancer patient who died after a hospital drug blunder.

Source: Larson, Kevin. 2004. The Science of Word Recognition.

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