Cridabmge Wrod Gmae

Every so often that “Cambridge Study” surfaces regarding the brain’s amazing ability to read scrambled words as long as the first and last letter remain in their original locations.   The study is cited as evidence for all sorts of pet ideas regarding various abilities of the human brain.

Here are the facts as I see them regarding this urban-ish legend.   Our brains are not auto de-scramblers.  We are, however; skilled context resolvers.

As pointed out by many before me, 3, 4 and 5 letter words make up the bulk of our everyday vocabulary. We can all read the following sentence even though many of the words are scrambled:

“My mom siad to me taht tish sduty is wnorg”

Does this prove some magical ability of our brain? Well, sort of, but it isn’t likely the ‘magical’ ability most would use this phenom to support.  A sentence with more 5+ letter words is next to impossible to read.   Try this one:

 “Mtullersafy wettirn lhgetny sectnnees pecrahd the iorhpesmeivd ilttnaellluecy fiateugd.”

Not so easy.

In the internet or chain-email examples, we see many small words and a few bigger words tossed in here or there.   The reason this phenomenon still works with some larger words is because of our strong contextual resolution and neural firing.   A related ability to resolve unknown words in context will serve as a good example of this ability.

Consider this passage:  “I was testing the hottest new PETCO product with my dog Fido.  I took the new Pachuchu and hurled it with all my strength.  Fido jumped into the air, grabbed it with his teeth, and brought it back to me.”  In this passage, most of us would understand that a Pachuchu was some sort of toy or object like a Frisbee or stick.  It is some gadgetry of sorts that is somehow like other things we use to play catch or fetch with our dogs.  The context of the passage helped us understand that new word.

Now consider our previous scrambled “easy” example with a few larger additions:

“My mom siad to me taht tish sduty is wnorg.   It is a lie.  She siad it is flsae to bieleve in teshe slliy gmaes.  Tehy are ricuuidlos and utnure.”

Most of us can still read this even though there are words of 5, 6, 7, and even a 10 letters.  This passage as a whole contains sufficient information to “fire”
contextual neurons that can help us “resolve” a scrambled word (in context) without actually having to do much work.  In a way, it sort of functions as an unknown word until we can ‘test’ the solution and proceed forward reading the sentence.  The easy words such as “wrong”, “lie” and “false” put into context the bigger words “believe”, “ridiculous” and “untrue”.    As we read the sentence the words become easier to solve because we get a stronger understanding of the context as we resolve, read and process each additional word.  Those related “in context” neurons are firing at low levels before we actually encounter them in the sentence and they can more easily be resolved because they are already in context (firing at low levels in our brain).

So in a sense, this is quite a magical process, just not likely the one that is cited in Internet lore.

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