Words and Reading Text
Typoglycemia (a mix of “typo” and “glycemia”) is a newly coined word or expression (a neologism) for a purported discovery about the cognitive processes involved in reading text. The principle is that readers can comprehend text despite spelling errors and misplaced letters in the words. It works because our brains don’t just rely on what they see – they also rely on what we expect to see.
Even if you haven’t heard of typoglycemia, maybe you’ll remember one of the viral puzzles that explains this phenomenon. Starting around 2003, an email circulated through what seems like every inbox claiming that scrambled English words are just as easy to read as the original words.
The generated or newly-coined words are anagrams (mixed letters of the original word), but our brain has no trouble in giving them a meaning. However, as cool as the original email was, it didn’t actually tell the whole truth. There is more to scrambled words than meets the eye.
What is Typoglycemia?
That viral email of 2003 tested our ability to read scrambled words. Here’s what it looks like:
Although the passage is littered with errors, it is still relatively easy to make out the words. However, the example doesn’t distort shorter words, and the assertion that only lateral letters matter is untrue.
“Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at 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.
You could read it, couldn’t you? The truth is pretty much every fluent English-speaker can read and understand it. The word-scrambling phenomenon has a punny (that’s fun with a pun) name: typoglycemia, playing mischievously with the prefix typo and suffix glycemia (having low blood sugar). Typoglycemia is the ability to read a paragraph like the one above despite the jumbled words.
To put the record straight: No such research was carried out at the University of Cambridge.
Is Typoglycemia Real or is it a Trick?
Does it take you nanoseconds to solve a Word Jumble in the newspaper? No? While your brain can breeze through some word-scrambles, it’s more complicated than that click-bait email suggests.
Read the article at Dictionary.com to find out more.
What Makes a Scrambled Word Easier to Read?
Other factors a jumbled-word passage needs so that everyone can easily read it, are:
- The words need to be relatively short.
- Function words (such as be, the, a, and other words that provide grammatical structure) can’t be messed up, otherwise the reader really struggles.
- Switching (or transposing) letters makes a big difference. Letters beside each other in a word can be switched without much difficulty for the reader to understand. When letters further apart are switched, it becomes much harder. For example, take porbelm vs. pelborm (for “problem”).
- We understand scrambled words better when their sounds are preserved: toatl vs. talot (for “total”).
- Here’s a big one: the passage is readable because it’s predictable (especially because we’ve seen it so many times).
There are other factors that apply as well – such as preserving double letters. For example, in the word according, the scrambled email keeps the cc intact (“aoccdrnig”). Double letters are contextual markers that give good hints. But we could also scramble it up this way: “ancdircog.” As you can see, breaking up the cc makes it more difficult.
According to Ashwini Nadkarni, MD, director of Digital Integrated Care in Psychiatry and Instructor at Harvard Medical School, typoglycemia is a neologism (a newly coined word) made up from the prefix “typo” and the suffix “glycemia.” Typoglycemia enables us to recognise words by matching inner letter content guided by a few clues, such as exterior letters. “As long as the exterior letters of the words remain the same, typoglycemia captures our preserved ability to comprehend them,” she says.
Science Alert, here, invites you to try to read the following:
Soaesn of mtiss and mloelw ftisnflurues,
Csloe boosm-feinrd of the mrtuniag sun;
Cnponsiirg wtih him how to laod and besls,
Wtih friut the viens taht runod the tahtch-eevs run.
Of course, you can read it, can’t you? It’s the first four lines of the poem “To Autumn” by John Keats.
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run.
Theories challenged by effects of transposed-letter priming
There are a number of theories that have been challenged by the effects shown with transposition-letter priming. These theories mainly have to do with how letters are used to process words. Slot-based coding theory states that each letter in a word is connected to a particular location, or slot, within that word. One of the major theories that predict letter slots is the interactive activation model created by McClelland and Rumelhart in 1981. This model assumes that people are letter-position specific when detecting words, so our recognition of words is based on what letters it contains, where the letters are placed within that word and the length of the word itself. Another example is the Bayesian reader model created by Norris in 2006 which also assumes that the letters in a word are associated with their specific location.
Contrary to what can be read on the Internet, one of the few published studies is Raeding Wrods With Jubmled Lettres; Reading Words with Jumbled Letters; There Is a Cost, Keith Rayner, Sarah J. White, Rebecca L. Johnson, and Simon P. Liversedge, Psychological Science, 17 (3), 192-193, (2006) which shows that the reading speed of a typoglycemic text is reduced by 11%. This study was conducted in 2006, long after the publication of the internet meme that still circulating on social networks. Moreover, this research has nothing to do with Cambridge, Oxford or Stanford, but comes from the University of Massachusetts.
‘Word blindness’ is an old-fashioned term used to mean that a person is unable to recognise and understand words that they see. This was the term used to describe dyslexia when it was first described by doctors in the late 19th century.
It means that the person does not seem to be able to remember the order and sequence of letters in a word from one time to the next. A child might be drilled for hours on an easy word, but the next time he saw the word would not recognise it.
Dyslexia has nothing to do with intelligence and different people are affected to different degrees. Problems may include difficulties in spelling words, reading quickly, writing words, “sounding out” words in the head, pronouncing words when reading aloud and understanding what one reads. Often, these difficulties are first noticed at school. When someone who previously was able to read loses that ability, it is known as “alexia”. The difficulties are involuntary and people with this disorder have a normal desire to learn. People with dyslexia have higher rates of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), developmental language disorders, and difficulties with numbers.
Dyslexia is believed to be caused by the interaction of genetic and environmental factors. Some cases run in families. Dyslexia that develops following a traumatic brain injury, stroke, or dementia is called “acquired dyslexia”. The underlying mechanisms of dyslexia are problems within the brain’s language processing.
If you’ve ever wondered how difficult reading can be when a person has dyslexia, wonder no more. Just visit nextweb, here, and see for yourself. The words change more quickly than you’d ever have imagined. The result is incredibly interesting and tries to emulate what it might feel like to have dyslexia.
Create your own ‘jumbled up’ text
If you want to confuse your friends and colleagues, go to https://www.dcode.fr/typoglycemia-generator where you can create your own ‘jumbled up’ text. Try it, it’s fun.
Sourced/Excerpted from and Further Reading:
- Source: https://observer.com/2017/03/chunking-typoglycemia-brain-consume-information/ ↑
- McClelland J. L., Rumelhart D. E. (1981). “An interactive activation model of context effects in letter perception: Part 1. an account of basic findings”. Psychological Review. (5): 375–407. doi:10.1037/0033-295x.88.5.375. Source: Wikipedia. ↑
- Norris, D. (2006). “The Bayesian Reader: Explaining word recognition as an optimal Bayesian decision process”. Psychological Review. 113 (2): 327–357. doi:10.1037/0033-295X.113.2.327. PMID 16637764. S2CID 16994234. Source: Wikipedia. ↑