According to the complete lack of research…

…by an English television producer, the theory that one can jumble letters up and still make sense of the words is (a.) featuring all over the web, suddenly, and (b.) cobblers.

See, the thing is, about a year ago there was a similar run of articles about how we don’t read the letters of words, bur rather the overall shape of the word itself. That is: replace a bunch of words with just the outline transcribed by the ascenders and descenders, and you can still read the word – or at least, the sentence, if you have a run of such block outlines.

And both theories can’t be right, can they? Couple with the fact that nobody seems able to pin down the ‘rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy,’ and I claim urban myth. Sorry. Nice idea, not taken in by it.

6 Comments on "According to the complete lack of research…"

  1. Hiya love,
    I came across your blog because I too was anal enough to scour the internet for proof when I got this email. Came across the metafilter chat you link to but also have had the following drawn to my attention:-
    New Scientist vol 162 issue 2188 – 29 May 1999, page 55
    You report that reversing 50-millisecond segments of recorded sound does not greatly affect listeners’ ability to understand speech (In Brief, 1 May, p 27).
    This reminds me of my PhD at Nottingham University (1976), which showed that randomising letters in the middle of words had little or no effect on the ability of skilled readers to understand the text. Indeed one rapid reader noticed only four or five errors in an A4 page of muddled text.
    This is easy to denmtrasote. In a puiltacibon of New Scnieitst you could ramdinose all the letetrs, keipeng the first two and last two the same, and reibadailty would hadrly be aftcfeed. My ansaylis did not come to much beucase the thoery at the time was for shape and senqeuce retigcionon. Saberi’s work sugsegts we may have some pofrweul palrlael prsooscers at work.
    The resaon for this is suerly that idnetiyfing coentnt by paarllel prseocsing speeds up regnicoiton. We only need the first and last two letetrs to spot chganes in meniang.
    This was not easy to type!
    Graham Rawlinson
    Aldershot, Hampshire
    Convincing or merely bogus corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative? New Scientist won’t let you search their archive if you aren’t a subscriber so I can’t check that end. A quick search shows that a Graham Rawlinson did study psychology at Nottingham but now works for some dodgy ‘creativity’ consultancy type bollocks and has written a book called ‘How to Invent Almost Anything’. I confess I now picture him as an extremely smarmy man in an expensive and ostentatious suit with bouffant hair and possibly a mid-atlantic accent. Must stop being so judgemental.
    Anyway, your thoughts?
    Fact chasing aside, it does seem that people can read this stuff if it’s not too scrambled and the words aren’t too long. And we do also pattern recognise. So we must be parallel processing and doing both at once. So, forgive me for only having a degree in neuroscience but, err, we know the brain parallel processes, surely?
    Anyway, err, long time no see, etc, hope you are well. I’m sort of living in Edinburgh and sort of living in Nottingham. Temporarily working for the Science Museum, overpaid and underchallenging, the exact opposite of TV.
    Take care,
    PS, isn’t there a way I can just email you like normal people rather than post a bloody comment to your blog? Maybe if you updated your online CV occasionally I might believe that the email given there would work…


  2. So we have (what we could henceforth call) the “msesgae”:
    “Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at an Elingsh uinervtisy, it deosn�t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht frist and lsat ltteer is at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae we do not raed ervey lteter by it slef but the wrod as a wlohe”.
    Even if it�s funny, this “msesgae” is an improper and excessive generalization, which conveys an extremely reductive vision. Moreover, whereas it should only remain what it is, i.e. a simple fantasist and entertaining text, it is taking worrying forms (we see it in mails, weblogs, chat-rooms where participants, absolutely amazed and amused, are venerating this “sensational discovery” and friends from everywhere (also excited) are forwarding it in different languages (apparently, this �hoaxmeme� (hoax + meme) is floating all over the web).
    Let�s try to encircle the topic (not by haughty pedantry but just by anticonformism and anti-�simplistism�). If you were looking for a serious explanation of it, here is an �anti-hoaxmeme�:
    Reading is a complex activity that involves many aspects of knowledge, which are of various natures and various complexities (this is due besides to the fact that �writing� is complex). It’s an activity, which implies cognitive processes but also, simultaneously, perceptive processes: reading, it’s to perceive and to identify words.
    Many linguists worked on the description of the mechanisms� evolution of the words� identification and there are now many developmental models of reading. The principal models comprise three way of reading, which correspond actually to three chronological stages of acquisition (for this presentation, let’s start with the second one):
    – the alphabetical reading (second stage): the reader connects the oral examination with the writing (in other words, he learns how to make correspondence between letters and sounds (ex: the sound [k]can be written with ‘c’ (cot), ‘k’ (kiss) or ‘ch’ (chord)). At this stage of phonological mediation, there is a code training; the learner enriches its phonological knowledge and transfers it to new words (it�s a form of self-training). This stage is called an “indirect way” because the reader reads the words through a decoding process.
    – the orthographical reading (third stage): the words are analyzed in orthographical units (orthography indicates here the sequence of letters forming the word). There is no phonological conversion; the words are read and recognized directly in reference to a memorized orthographical lexicon. This stage replaces gradually (but not entirely) the alphabetical one. The reader does not need to decipher anymore: he recognizes the words through a “direct way”.
    – the logographic reading (which is actually the FIRST stage in the reading training): at this stage, the reader uses various kinds of clues to ‘read’ the words, inter alia, those provided by the extralinguistic environment. The letters� order and the phonological factors are not taken in account, but the visual clues are. There can be at this stage an instantaneous recognition of familiar words (or somehow �learned by heart�), and the riddles made on the basis of projecting visual clues allow the constitution of a first total vocabulary. The visual clues can simply be the length of the word or its “silhouette” (outline) or even just one letter. The classic example to illustrate this stage is the word: “Coca-Cola�, of which logo is easily identified by almost all children of 5-6 years old. If we change only one letter of the word: �Coca-Coca�, children will not notice the difference from the original word (adults neither sometimes, as some experiments proved it).
    The most perspicacious of you may have already understood: what occurs actually when we read the “msesgae”, it is that we, literate readers to whom reading and writing have been taught, use our competences, acquired and automated thanks to years of reading experience. In other words, we have developed “HABITS” of reading.
    The “msesgae” experiment could let us think that we get back to a logographic reading, in which access to significance is carried out directly via the pictorial semantic system (with words treated like images-logos), but this is not completely true.
    Actually, we continue to use the orthographical reading system (in which access to significance is carried out via the verbal semantic system). If we look at the “msesgae � more closely, we can notice that 34 of its 68 words (short and common by the way), are correctly spelled (50%, half of the text, and most of them are “grammatical words”). Added to a simple and common syntax (journalistic style of the �forma brevis�) and our capacity of anticipation and auto-reflex correction of more or less experienced reader (the system used is close to the “typing error” one, and anyway, teachers manage quite well to read our essays stuffed with spelling mistakes. In other words, you don�t have to be a Professor of literature to spot “what” in ” waht “!!!), it gives many visual clues!!! (Moreover, there is a syllabic facilitation phenomenon, but I skip the details).
    The proposition, which is conveyed through the �msesgae�, is not completely false but it is very reductive, and completely incorrect when it affirms that only the place of the first and the last letter of the words do matter. Actually, it deals more with their “silhouette” (from which our (almost standard) system of abbreviations rises (another facilitating clue)). If we can read the “msesgae” without any problem, it is because we are good readers reading a text easily accessible in spite of its orthographic and spelling mistakes.
    To prove it, if I give you the correctly spelled words “acetoxybutynylbithiophene deacetylase” or “carboxymethylenebutenolidase”, dear expert readers, you will resort to an alphabetical analysis (second stage) and will use a grapho-phonological decoding for these unknown words (I suppose, this experiment may not always work if you are chemist, druggist or doctor… if it�s the case, sorry for this affront :-).
    Another counterexample: if you read AT THE FIRST GO the following sentence as quickly and fluently as you did with the “msesgae”, all my theoric explanation goes down the drain (or you are an innate champion of anagrams!):
    �Nreuuoms pmeeononnhs peossss uiapocmltecnd etaaoilxnpn; nwttdtsniinoahg, the pdseuo-snfiiiectc spssliiimm is not snfiiiectc and eieecndvs are oetfn mdanleiisg�*.
    Guillaume Fon Sing,
    (alias GUITCHUS)
    * �Numerous phenomenons possess uncomplicated explanation; notwithstanding, the pseudo-scientific simplisism is not scientific and evidences are often misleading�.
    Please forward it, �it can teach sb a thing or two.


  3. Hi! Afetr reaidng a cpoy of the email you meinton (wchih I funod to be very amuisng, I don’t know why you’re so sroe aobut it) I worte a sipmle Perl script (taht’s a prmrmioagng lagnuage) to jmlube all but the first and lsat letetrs in evrey wrod of any gievn txet. But when I cornevted a rnadom arictle tkaen from an oilnne neasppwer I colud hlardy raed it!
    Gaharm’s suggieston to keep the frist two and lsat two leettrs did wonedrs, thoguh. I moiifded the prrogam to keep two leettrs at ecah end of wdors sveen or mroe letetrs long, and eevn three leettrs for wrods mroe than twleve letters lnog. That did the trick.
    Thnaks, aslo, to Guulalime for his letnghy exnaapliton. See? What’s wnrog with a tniy ineconnt eimal that kidnles one’s cursiioty to laren a bit more? If taht’s bnieg anal… wlel, so be it! 😀 And who konws, tihs ltilte bit of intafoimron may eevn porve me uefsul smoe day. “Lossy” text copmisrseon, or sidestpeping smoe siputd intlectelual preoprty rigths obacstle (it hapepns from tmie to tmie) ceoms to mind…


  4. Well, as the author of the PhD thesis (Nottingham University, 1976) The Significance of Letter Position in Word Recognition, maybe a word is allowed?
    First, this was a PhD, I was poorly paid, and I was not trying to suddenly become some great name in science!
    I did some experiments, some people found them interesting, others wish to challenge what I wrote, and some do so without having read what I wrote. Oh well, that is life!
    Yes Sophia Collins, I do work for some dodgy innovation consultancy, my own, but no I do not have a bouffant hair do, nor do I have an expensive suit, I live in West Sussex with partner, dog Millie and two cats. I think my book, How to Invent (Almost) Anything is quite good, and some do too, with one comment, “I bought it with company money and liked it so much I bought my own.”
    Maybe you should not be so judgemental, but I take it as fun and it did make me laugh! So thanks for that.
    So did you ever have a bouffant hair do?
    Have fun guys and gals (presented with an attempt aty mid-Atlantic accent)


  5. A) DEFINITELY must remember not to be so judgemental.
    B) Must confess that it wasn’t me who first found that letter from New Scientist (I did say ‘brought to my attention’). I wouldn’t want to be taking credit for someone else’s research skills.


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