Did you actually read what you thought you read?

457px-Théophile_Emmanuel_Duverger_Two_children_reading cThe first few years my daughter was in grade school, she would sit at the table in the breakfast nook and do homework while I prepared dinner. One evening while I stirred cracker crumbs into a meatloaf mix, she sat in her usual place, reading a passage too softly for me to hear. Then she suddenly cried out “They can’t be big and strong! They are dwarf horses.”

That was my cue to subtly look over her shoulder and identify the error. “It says draft not dwarf. Remember those big horses with the long hair over their hooves that pulled us around on the wagon ride?” I did not tell her then, but I saw that recognition of conflict with what she thought she read as an accomplishment. My daughter is dyslexic and she would try to figure out what a sentence said though recognizing a couple of letters in each word. Her mind would not always put the letters in the same order each time she read the same word. So she had learned to read based mostly on context.

However, context is actually what adults tend to lean towards when reading. Have you seen paragraphs in which interiors of words have scrambled spelling or numbers replace similarly shaped letters? A mature reader can usually find enough clues to surmise the meaning and read these correctly as their brain fills in the gaps for them. However this does slow down reading speed, and the longer the words, the harder they are to decipher[1].  Basically this puts the average reader on equal footing with my dyslexic daughter.

Often what we think we see, is often not what we really see. We learn to process visual information quickly because our brain takes short cuts. Our brains want to make sense of the world and without consciously thinking about it they fill in what is missing based on past experience. The reason visual illusions work is that past experiences shapes our minds so that even when we know something to be true or false, an illusion can force us to experience it the other way.

Unlike my daughter I assume I can read well and just let my mind correct what doesn’t make sense. So what if I am not aware of a misspelled or omitted word. Haven’t I read what the author intended to write? But how often do I actually misread a passage because I were expecting it to say something else?

[1] cwww.mrc-cbu.cam.ac.uk/people/matt.davis/cmabridge/
Art based on painting by Théophile Emmanuel Duverge

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