I’ve seen this paragraph a lot in the past week:

“Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a total 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.”

At first glance, it seems amazing. But it’s a hoax. The reason you can still read it with ease has to do with how your brain works, but not the way that the statement would have you think.

First off, although it is true the human mind does not read each letter individually, it is not true that the brain reads the word as a whole. What your brain does is parse together groups of letters. The vowels are what have little to no consequence, and in fact Hebrew is often written without vowel indication. Your brain searches for familiar combinations of letters, like SR, PL, NT, and CK and puts the word together. This is why the made up word “Prock” can be read (and pronounced) with ease but the word “Tfonh” cannot. In the paragraph above the consonant letter combinations are largely preserved. For instance, look at the word “problem” if you remove the vowels you get “prblm” and if you remove the vowels from the jumbled word “porbelm” you get “prblm.” It turns out the jumbled letters are not so jumbled after all.

Here is the paragraph again with these consonant combinations broken up. According to the statement, you should be able to read this with the same amount of ease:

“Ardncciog to a rrhecacseh at Cgaridmde Usrievtiny, it dneso't metatr in waht oerdr the lrteets in a wrod are, the olny inpoertmt tnhig is taht the fsirt and lsat lteetr be at the rghit pcale. The rset can be a ttaol mses and you can sltil raed it wthiutt a pbolrem. Tihs is bscueae the hmaun mnid deos not raed eervy lteetr by iltesf, but the wrod as a wohle.”

Still doable, but much harder.

Secondly, your brain doesn’t read all the words. Fast readers learn to skip over unimportant words in a sentence. If I asked you to quickly count the numbers of F’s in this sentence:

“A fox will fall off of a frog if he has no wings to fly”

You might not get the correct answer of 8 if you read the sentence quickly enough because your brain will pass over to words “of” and “if.” These words, however, can contain important context. In the jumbled paragraph we are forced to read these words to gain context. Notice that it is stuffed with a lot of two and three letter words.

Here is a random paragraph with the one, two, and three letter words removed (it’s from the Columbia report, if you care):

"Based NASA's history ignoring external recommendations, making improvements that atrophy with time, Board confidence that Space Shuttle safely operated more than years based solely renewed post-accident vigilance."

If you try to read it slowly it makes no sense, but try reading it quickly and you’ll get the gist. It’s not hard to read, at any rate. The same cannot be said of the jumbled paragraph. Here it is again with the one, two and three letter words removed.

“Aoccdrnig rscheearch Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, deosn't mttaer waht oredr ltteers wrod, olny iprmoetnt tihng taht frist lsat ltteer rghit pclae. rset total mses sitll raed wouthit porbelm. Tihs bcuseae huamn mnid deos raed ervey lteter istlef, wrod wlohe.”

Again, you can read it, but with more difficulty.

Your ease in reading my examples is raised by your familiarity with the paragraph. Let’s try a new paragraph with the letters jumbled. I will use a paragraph that has little one, two, and three letter words. (This one is an excerpt from my weblog)

“iltmiaemedy uopn eienntrg we pyeard to the irenentt gdos for awnolilg us to pre-rstgieer our ttkeics. The lnie to get bgaeds was HGUE (I haer ploepe wree wtniiag on the oerdr of hruos). We setrtutd our pinnnlag-aaehd svlees oevr to the wlil clal lnie and wtiead lses then two mnetuis for all of us to pcik up our bgedas and pre-rsgoiitatern tkteics.”

Get the ptricue? I mean… Get the picture?