Lions, Mirrors and Reading

A couple of articles I came across provide insight into the development of our ability to read. Not only are some novel explanations put forward, but it comes at a time when one of my daughters has experienced what is described. Examples of how evolution can explain seemingly impossible developments in human are always interesting to me. As is often the case, an adaption suited for one thing is "hijacked" and put to use for something else. What I've seen in my household is how my daughters will often flip letters ("b" and "d", for example) when writing, and it takes months or longer for them to get the correct positioning down. In the Economist, new research has found 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...[and] skills acquired relatively recently in people’s evolutionary past must have piggybacked on regions in the brain that originally evolved for other purposes, since there has not been time for dedicated neural systems to develop from scratch.

Since writing has only been around for 5-10,000 years, there hasn't been enough time to evolve an adaptation for reading. I recall that the shortest known adaptation is lactose tolerance in adults, which I think started in Europe and has been spreading since then. My kids (and all early writers) are unlearning an evolved survival response that allows them to distinguish between reflections from real objects. Again, from the Economist:

Dr Dehaene thinks that the VWFA (Visual Word Form Area) may be responsible for the ability of some primates to recognise themselves in a mirror, or to recognise a tiger even if it is seen only in reflection—thus conferring an important survival benefit. That it is also crucial for reading might explain why children make a type of error he calls “early mirror reading”. It was thought that only dyslexic children were prone to confusing “b” and “d”, and “p” and “q”, and occasionally writing their names back-to-front, but Dr Dehaene has found that all children make this error."

In a recent New Yorker article ("A Man of Letters" June 28, 2010), Oliver Sacks describes a case where damage caused by a stroke in a patient revealed the connections between many areas of the human body that allow us to see and read:

Reading, of course, does not end with the recognition of visual word forms–it would be more accurate to say that it begins with this. Written language is meant to convey not only the sound of words, but their meaning, and the visual word form area has intimate connections to the auditory and speech areas of the brain as well to the intellectual and executive areas, and to the areas subserving memory and emotion. The visual word form area is a crucial node in a complex cerebral network of reciprocal connections–a network peculiar, it seems, to the human brain.

Sacks describes how our evolved capacity for rapidly recognizing objects by their shapes, even when we haven't fully processed what we're looking at, is at the core of reading. Type designers recognized this in the 1950s when working on the US Interstate: people recognized mixed-case words much faster than upper-case words because they could more easily discriminate the shape. Sacks cites research showing a limited range of shapes and combinations humans use to create alphabets of any kind, and their tight relationship to the kinds of topographies humans innately recognize. While we may think the alphabets of the world to be very diverse, they are actually limited and tied to closely to our evolved abilities.

I'm sure there are more important takeaways from this than to carefully consider when to use type treatments (any good designer should know this), but I'm always happy to find connections like this that link personal and professional interests with real-life experience.