Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The strage saga of the scrambled letter not-urban myth

An investigation of a 'friendly spam' email leads to an urban myth that's not a myth, and to a comment on reading disability ...
Be the Best You can Be: Scrambled letters and reading disability, not to mention emergent memes and urban myths
"I cdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg.
The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid Aoccdrnig to rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsatltteer be in the rghit pclae.
The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Amzanig huh?;"

...This text circulated on the internet in September 2003. I first became aware of it when a journalist contacted a my colleague Sian Miller on 16th September, trying to track down the original source...

... I've found a ... page that tracked down the original demonstration of the effect of letter randomisation to Graham Rawlinson. Graham wrote a letter to New Scientist in 1999 (in response to a paper by Saberi & Perrot (Nature, 1999) on the effect of reversing short chunks of speech). You can read the letter here, or in a link to New Scientist, here. In it Graham says:

"This reminds me of my PhD at Nottingham University (1976), which showed that randomising letters in the middle of words had little or no effect on the ability of skilled readers to understand the text. Indeed one rapid reader noticed only four or five errors in an A4 page of muddled text."

It's possible that with the publicity offered by the internet, that Dr. Rawlinson's research might be more widely read in future. For those wanting to cite this in their own research the full reference is:

Rawlinson, G. E. (1976) The significance of letter position in word recognition. Unpublished PhD Thesis, Psychology Department, University of Nottingham, Nottingham UK. (summary here)
So Dr. Rawlinson's unpublished 1976 thesis (31 years ago) has come to worldwide attention as the result of a propagating urban myth that's not a myth, and this story is best illustrated by a chaotic and scrambled web page that further extends the original work across multiple languages and references newer software for generating readable scrambles...
Self-referential on many levels.

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