Suirprsed taht you can raed tihs? Here’s why

Illustration of a newspaper with scrambled text in its headline
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The huamn brian deos icnredbile tihgns taht we do not hvae all the awnsres to. Raegdin taht perivuos scnetnce is porof taht we are mroe cbaplabe tahn waht we bieleive.

So, how are we sitll abel to raed tehse wrods wehn tehy go angaist erevyhtnig we hvae been tughat auobt how to raed? 

When children are learning how to read, the first step involves developing an association between a letter and its sound. Then, these pronunciations are strung together to create a word. However, along with the ability to identify what the letters are in a word, the child must also be able to identify where they are. This allows them to recognize the difference between words such as “stun” and “nuts.” So, why were you able to read the first three sentences even though almost all of the words were misspelled? 

Like anything popular in the 21st century, this phenomenon that caught the attention of researchers spread in the form of a meme. The meme was a paragraph of scrambled letters, just like the beginning of this article, that said our brain could read rearranged letters as long as the first and last letters of the word were in place. Notice how all the words in this article’s first three sentences — even though they are clearly misspelled — still begin and end with the correct letters.

While people believe that this is what allows us to comprehend what the word should be, research has shown that this “rule” declared by the meme does not pertain to every word. Matt Davis, senior research scientist at Cambridge University, explains that extreme rearrangement of letters may be indecipherable even with the first and last letters intact.

Davis gives this example: A dootcr has aimttded the magltheuansr of a tageene ceacnr pintaet who deid aetfr a hatospil durg blendur.” It reads: “A doctor has admitted the manslaughter of a teenage cancer patient who died after a hospital drug blunder.” Reading this sentence is exponentially more difficult than the first three sentences of this article. This proves that the first and last letters of a word are not the only mechanism with which our brains remove letters and unscramble these words. 

However, if the scrambling of letters is kept at a minimum but the first and last letters of the word are rearranged, our brains will have a difficult time unscrambling them. Using the word interrupted, I rearranged it to form reintpurtde. When we see this scrambled version, we may begin to think of other words that it would say, such as reinterpreted.

A study analyzed the eye movements of 30 college students while they read rearranged words. If the word was scrambled in the middle, the students were able to read it easily. If the rearrangement was near the end, it became slightly more difficult. The hardest words to decipher were when the letters at the beginning of the word were scrambled. This occurred because, as we try to decode misspellings, our brain uses context in order to fix the word so it makes sense.

When we first look at rearranged words, we notice the first letter of the word, and then we try to see what word can be found amid the scramble. If these first letters of the two words do not match, it becomes extremely difficult for our brains to draw conclusions.

Researchers have attributed parts of this phenomenon to our brain’s ability to make predictions based on context. While a person reading the jumbled words is not certain about what the full sentence will say, the brain produces a logical array of words that could potentially come after each scrambled word in order to create a coherent sentence. When reading the sentence, we don’t realize that we probably weren’t even able to fully comprehend the scrambled words; our brain’s anticipation allowed us to subconsciously fill in the blank. 

The brain and its association with reading is a very complex subject. There are many more phenomenons that we can explore, and research will help us explain it. The nxet tmie yuor barin aollws you to udenrstnad sctnences lkie tihs, tnihk aobut how all of tihs sratetd wtih a meme.

Contact Nina Li at [email protected].