Rainbow over Galileo Lane, Tucson

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Amazing insight into how the brain and eye work in reading

My grand daughter Rachel was married to a young man with rather severe palsy. One night at dinner he was recalling a school incident from when he was five years old. He remembers being presented a page with lines of letters. As he put it the letters jumped out at him and instead of naming the letters he responded with the names of school friends.

He could already read- make sense of print. This at a time when he had great trouble being understood in speech. I recalled some popular magazine story years ago about a disease called hyperlexia. Speech therapists discovered young patients reading all the waiting room magazines while waiting for therapy. I remember thinking that’s pretty predictable – kids turning to reading when speech is less accessible.
As we talked I had an amazing insight.

Here is a five year old with palsy whose head jerks around . How does he learn to make sense of print if he can’t control involuntary movements of his head and eyes? Since he did learn to read, we have to assume that he was able to get sufficient input from the eyes to make sense of the print . He had to do so in spite of the jerky movements of head and eyes
So that means his cortex could get the input it needed from these uncontrolled eye movements.  That’s pretty remarkable but it shows how much the brain can perceive from jumbled visual input.

So now put yourself in this then five year old head. He doesn’t perceive lines of letters. He sees print to make sense of. What he describes as the letters jumping out at him is patterns that his cortex is trying to make sense of. So he perceives bits of names not names of letters.

Put this now into a broader context. His family were post World War II Russian immigrants to Canada and then to the US. From birth on, he is desperate to connect with those around him but loud, garbled boisterous speech leads to violent fits of frustration which puts off those who he needs to connect with and often leads to punishment and constraint. Eventually he learns both Russian and English. And he learns to read. But it is some time before anyone appreciates any of this.

His competence goes unrecognized.
I see two lessons in this:
1.The mind is even more flexible than I thought in its ability to tolerate ambiguity and variation in language.

2. The universal ability of humans to invent and use language in a community of language users is also much stronger than I had previously believed.