As we were discussing object recognition and the role of feature detectors in class this past week, I instantly thought about my 8th grade English class and an activity my teacher, Mrs. Rupe, had asked us to complete. She put up a slide on the projector that read:
“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.”
My classmates and I were all surprised to learn we could read the jumbled mess of words with almost no difficulty. Wow. This concept blew my mind at age 13 and gave my little ego a boost. Apparently, this brainteaser of sorts had been floating around via email amongst the teachers and Mrs. Rupe thought it would be a fun and interesting activity to share with the class. Obviously, our teacher wasn’t an expert in Cognition so the only information I knew about it from then until now was what was written in the text. However, as previously mentioned, this memory popped into my head during lecture this week and I began to wonder about the logistics.
After doing some research I found a couple articles with some pretty interesting information about this particular word scramble. According to http://www.foxnews.com/story/2009/03/31/if-can-raed-tihs-msut-be-raelly-smrat/ there are some flaws in the above statement. Though we do read words as a whole instead of reading each individual letter, there was never actually a research study done at Cambridge to prove it! The original email was sent without any mention of Cambridge University, it was added somewhere down the line after The London Times interviewed a neuropsychologist about the phenomenon.
Matt Davis, a researcher at Cambridge University was interested in the origin of the email, likely because the “research study” was done at the University of his employment. In the article he confirms that no actual research was done at Cambridge (he works as a researcher for Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, in Cambridge, UK, and a Medical Research Council unit that investigates how the brain processes language) As an expert on this subject matter, he was also interested in the evidence that supposedly backed claims made in the email. He points out a number of flaws and explains the research in an article on his web site. http://www.mrc-cbu.cam.ac.uk/people/matt.davis/cmabridge/
He dubs the word scramble email an Internet meme and claims that though some of the ideas are true, it is generally incorrect. He then breaks it down line-by-line, addressing elements of relevant research on the role of letter order on reading.
The basic, “hypothesis” is that because we see words as a whole instead of letter by letter, the order of the letters doesn’t matter when we’re reading, just as long as the first and last letters are in their respective places. He easily debunks this idea with a series of examples that become progressively harder to read:
- A vheclie epxledod at a plocie cehckipont near the UN haduqertares in Bagahdd on Mnoday kilinlg the bmober and an Irqai polcie offceir
- Big ccunoil tax ineesacrs tihs yaer hvae seezueqd the inmcoes of mnay pneosenirs
- A dootcr has aimttded the magltheuansr of a tageene ceacnr pintaet who deid aetfr a hatospil durg blender
He also elaborates on ways in which the authors might have manipulated the text to “enhance the desired effect and further prove its point.” Davis and his colleagues noted that the author used shorter, easier words when writing the email and most of the function words like (the, be, and, and you) remained unscrambled. One of the most significant “cheats” the author uses however, is what Davis calls transpositions of adjacent letters. (e.g. for “problem” -porbelm is easier to read than pborlem.)Davis further elaborates on these flaws and introduces a few more that were detrimental to the validity of the email.
Though we ultimately know that people do perceive words as whole, the order actually does matter. When you get down to the specifics, we aren’t as “smart” as we think we are, or at least as smart as I thought I was at 13…
After reading through all of Davis’ research, I feel like I’ve been duped. The word scramble was well intended and interesting, but was ultimately not very accurate.