the power of the human mind

From one of those intra-office ‘junk’ e-mails:

I cnudolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg. The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid! Aoccdrnig to rsceearh 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 taotl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Amzanig huh?

Well, yes, it is rather neat that I could read & understand all that. Rather hard to type though! (Even though I am one of thost people who types ‘taht’ for ‘that’ from time to time.) But what they’re not telling you is that you still have to be able to read first! If you don’t already know what each individual word is supposed to look like, your mind will see only nonsense in that paragraph. 

As it happens, this isn’t a new ‘finding’ – this e-mail, or something very similar, has been doing the rounds for years. And given the frequency with which the phrases ‘scientists have discovered’ & ‘university researchers have found’ are used to enhance the strength of (sometimes quite vacuous) claims, I do wonder what those ‘Cambridge University’ researchers actually did.

A quick search took me to the site, which is a repository of useful information about hoaxes & urban legends, & trivia galore. According to them, the paragraph I’ve quoted first made its appearance in 2003 & has been circulating on the internet ever since. (Nothing ever disappears on the net!) The good folks at snopes also give some links to further reading – one of them to the MRC Cognition & Brain Sciences Unit at Cambridge University (UK) itself. Well, you’d hope that they’d know all about it!

Er, no… Matt Davis, who actually works at the MRC Cognition lab in Cambridge, has this to say on the issue:

There are a number of groups in Cambridge, UK doing research on language. There is the group where I work (Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit), there are also groups in the Department of Experimental Psychology most notably the Centre for Speech and Language (where I used to work). There are also language researchers in Phonetics, English and Applied Linguistics, and at Anglia Polytechnic University.

To my knowledge, there’s no-one in Cambridge UK who is currently doing research on this topic. There may be people in Cambridge, MA, USA who are responsible for this research, but I don’t know of them. If you know different, please let me know [].

True, it may be that the researchers claimed to have done this work are in the US rather than the UK, but still… Matt’s written a web page looking at the science that underlies some of the claims made in the meme I quoted – it’s quite fascinating if you’re into languages as he’s also got examples of what that same paragraph would look like in other tongues. (Apparently there are some languages in which it just wouldn’t work.) In it he also points out that the statement that it doesn’t matter in what order the letters in a word are, the only important thing is that the first and last letter be at the right place is incorrect:

For instance, compare the following three sentences:

1) A vheclie epxledod at a plocie cehckipont near the UN haduqertares in Bagahdd on Mnoday kilinlg the bmober and an Irqai polcie offceir

2) Big ccunoil tax ineesacrs tihs yaer hvae seezueqd the inmcoes of mnay pneosenirs

3) A dootcr has aimttded the magltheuansr of a tageene ceacnr pintaet who deid aetfr a hatospil durg blendur

…the sentences are linked to the original unscrambled texts.

Hopefully, these demonstrations will have convinced you that in some cases it can be very difficult to make sense of sentences with jumbled up words. Clearly, the first and last letter is not the only thing that you use when reading text. If this really was the case, how would you tell the difference between pairs of words like "salt" and "slat"?

The mind does work in mysterious ways – but you do have to know the words first. So – happy reading! And remember, ‘good stories’ are not necessarily always true, or accurate 🙂

One thought on “the power of the human mind”

  • Slightly off-topic, a Ph.D. student friend of mine when I was at Cambridge studied an area related to this. I forget the details, but one aspect was errors in language and determination of the actual meaning from context. It had an immediate parallel to my thinking with lip-reading, as there you can’t read every word “on the lips” accurately and are forced to rely on context to second-guess what the words actually are from the ambiguous “lipread” forms. It also has the effect that hard-of-hearing or deaf people lag behind in conversations because it takes them a little time to figure out what was just said; they’re busy trying to work out what was actually said, given the context of the words and the larger conversation.

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