Have you ever walked up to a door like this and then tried to push the door open to get to the other side?
The next time that I do it, I will probably not feel as silly about it because of having read about the new research that delves into the human brain's ability to understand mirror-image words.
It turns out that we actually process chiral (mirror-imaged) words, presented individually, automatically and unconsciously at least for a few instants. The visual system rotates the words reflected in the mirror and recognizes them at a very early stage of 150 - 250 milliseconds. The brain then realizes that there is something different about this scene and changes the processing steps accordingly.
The research was conducted at the Basque Centre on Cognition, Brain and Languages in Spain and involved the monitoring the brain activity of 27 participants by use of encephalograms. The subjects were shown words for 50 milliseconds on a computer screen in one of two ways:
- words where some of the letters or other information were rotated or
- words where the entire word was rotated as in
HTUOM instead of MOUTH
The encephalogram results show that, at between 150 - 250 msec, the brain's response was the same in both cases as when the words are read normally. This means that the visual system sees both forms as equivalent.
The researchers believe that this helps explain why a lot of children have trouble distinguishing p from q, d from b, and write their 's' in the mirror-image form. They further hypothesize that the acquisition of reading skills somehow inhibits the processing of chiral words as normal words in most of us. The scientists believe that further investigations will help us understand dyslexia and dysgrafia better.
Research by other scientists is not in complete agreement with this study and there have not been many investigations in this field. More studies have been done comparing normal pictures with their mirror-image counterparts and have found similar brain activity in those cases. Studies using fMRI by Stanislas Dehaene at the French medical research agency, INSERM, does not show the same brain activity with mirror-image words as the Spanish research does but they believe that if they were to have children or illiterate adults as the subjects, the findings would be different. Again, they believe that the acquisition of reading skills changes the way we process words.
Most of the time, anyway. I am sure that I will still have occasions when I will be pushing a door instead of pulling it.