Monday, June 28, 2010


Everyone's had the experience of writing a familiar word, then looking at it and wondering why it looked strange. You think maybe you've misspelled it, though it's a common word you've written thousands of times. Even after you confirm that it's spelled correctly, it still looks funny—like it's written in a foreign language.

As a kid, sometimes while I read, I'd have a word suddenly look strange to me like that. I found that if I kept staring at the word, soon it not only looked like a foreign language, but a foreign alphabet as well—as if I were looking at Russian or Greek written on a page. If I continued to stare, I got to a point where I even stopped recognizing the shapes as letters, but rather some kind of exotic graphic marks—the way Arabic or Chinese, say, seemed to me.

And, if I still continued to concentrate and stare, soon the letters began to look simply like abstract black marks on a white background, which is—and this is the point—exactly what they are. This, of course, is what makes the act of reading so remarkable and learning to read so important. To be able to convey such a rich world of thoughts, descriptions, arguments and evocations from a system of organized marks on a background is utterly remarkable.

But what I'm getting at here is something different: the stripping away of all of that meaning until the thing itself is clearly seen. 

More later.


  1. I didn't know that happened to anyone else, the abstract nature of the written world asserting itself like a micro-blackout or stroke in your brain...

  2. I wonder if you saw Oliver Sacks recent New Yorker piece about that very thing: alexia (the inability to recognize written words) caused by stroke. (

    Hopefully, in our cases, it's something different. It took me till the age of 30 to realize that what I'd been doing as a kid (and later, facilitated by meditation) was switching to right-brain seeing. Funny, I've never been able to tap into an auditory analogue—never been able to apply it to music. It's always been strictly visual with me.

  3. You may want to check out Stanislas Dehaene's stuff. He's done a lot of thinking about how orthographies evolved and how they are represented in the brain.

  4. Pete: Thanks for the tip. Just ordered Reading in the Brain: The Science and Evolution of a Human Invention.