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Reading and mirror recognition

Fascinating article in last week's Economist.

The 7th Forum of European Neuroscience, held in Amsterdam this week, heard that learning to read requires the brain’s visual system to undergo profound changes, including unlearning the ancient ability to recognise an object and its mirror image as identical.

Mirror writing individual letters (p & q, b and d) is something that all children do, not just dyslexic ones, observes the article. (I had somehow thought this was obvious, but far be it for me to know what the previous or current state of child-advice is.)

Dr Dehaene believes that reading probably results in an enhancement of visual perception, but that these preliminary findings indicate there might also be a mild form of competition at work, whereby readers pay for their literacy with a slight reduction in their ability to perceive faces.

Do you have problems recognizing faces? It may be because you're highly literate.

Intriguing stuff.


( 13 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 19th, 2010 01:14 pm (UTC)
I sure do--I always thought it was my being left-handed. Fascinating!
Jul. 20th, 2010 11:37 am (UTC)
I think backwards writing (rather than confusing mirror letters) is linked to being left-handed as it is the more logical way to write if you're using your left hand. It's only culture that says English is written from left to right.

All the left-handers in my family write more swiftly and more neatly backwards than forwards.
Jul. 20th, 2010 11:50 am (UTC)
I vaguely remember doing it, and I know my daughter did.
Jul. 19th, 2010 01:19 pm (UTC)
That actually makes me feel a bit better. (Although I didn't know mirror reading was supposed to be difficult.)
Jul. 19th, 2010 02:11 pm (UTC)
I'm sure it says somewhere that in Marain (the language the Culture uses), the glyphs are design such that rotation and mirroring produce no ambiguities... In the absence of any native Marain readers, Cyrillic appears to have less such ambiguity than Latin, would be interesting to run that test with people familiar with that instead. (Of course, it's not just the breaking of symmetry to recognise individual glyphs you need, there's still the letter order thing).
Jul. 20th, 2010 11:41 am (UTC)
That really would be an interesting follow-up study!
Jul. 19th, 2010 02:25 pm (UTC)
I have a very poor memory for faces - which is a distinctly you're in the wrong job condition.
Jul. 19th, 2010 02:40 pm (UTC)
I've read a fair bit about this (there's a chapter in my dissertation about mirrors and I read everything there was to read). Reading the Roman alphabet isn't the only way to learn mirror-image recognition--another example is lace-making.
Jul. 19th, 2010 10:42 pm (UTC)
OK, I (perhaps particularly) can believe that. I'm a good proof-reader (but not of my own writing) and I can't learn patterns of Tai Chi forms by watching - I have to experience it. However, I can learn the sequence as a list, if written down. I learned to read as a child by forcing myself to read every word I ever saw, and even now find it hard not to read words formed in car licence plates, and irrelevant shop signs.
Jul. 19th, 2010 11:05 pm (UTC)
It's possible/likely that the author of the article didn't accurately represent all the nuances of the research, but the way it's written stinks faintly of just-so-story to me. I should be afraid of a tiger whether it has a scar on the right side of its face or the left side. I don't need to know right from left in order to recognize it as a threat; mammal faces are generally symmetrical so a tiger is a tiger either way.

Now if I've already come to understand that Tiger McScarFace is out to get me after I stole its grande frappuccino, then it would probably do me some good to understand that the thing reflected in the pool is Tiger McScarFace, even though the scar is on the "wrong" side. But if I recognize that the thing in the pool is an image of TMcSF but that the real TMcSF is actually OMG behind me, then that means I don't consider mirror images equivalent at all: I recognize that a reflection is different from the real thing and I know to run in the opposite direction.

In the interests of full disclosure, I have terrible trouble with faces (like, comically terrible, like, "asking the wrong waitress for the bill" terrible, like, "asking 'who's that guy?' when an actor in a movie has a costume change" terrible) and I learned to read very early. So this article could well describe me. (That said, I never got letters backwards and remember being VERY VERY YOUNG and scoffing at children who did.) I'm generally pretty suspicious of evolutionary biology commandeered to explain culture, though I do realize that that isn't exactly what this particular author is doing.
Jul. 20th, 2010 11:45 am (UTC)
I would be astonished if a popular economic magazine managed to accurately report all nuances of the research. The article itself claims only minor - if consistent - correlation between literacy and a decrease in facial recognition. But as educationally-privileged ailments go, "I can't recognize faces because I'm too literate" is a remarkably appealing diagnostic, whether or not that simplistic rendition of it does the research even the faintest justice.

May your life be generally free of Tiger McScarFaces.
Jul. 20th, 2010 02:43 am (UTC)
I could argue I'm literate because I took refuge in books from my poor social skills that partly included trouble recognizing faces; but I'm not sure it's that simple either way.

(Actually, in my recent tv-watching, I've found myself recognizing actors from other shows even before green_trilobite does; I suspect some faces just catch my eye more than others.)
Jul. 20th, 2010 11:54 am (UTC)
Well damn. That would be me.
( 13 comments — Leave a comment )