Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Writer Who Couldn't Read

The other day I was lying in bed unable to sleep. When this happens (which is often), I usually grab my BlackBerry and scroll through my twitter feed, just to kill time and make my eyes tired.
But I found something that particular evening that caught my attention--a news story (by Robert Krulwich) from NPR about an author who couldn't read.

It's a sad, but interesting article about Canadian author, Howard Engel, who one morning woke up unable to read and struggled to regain his literacy via finger tracings and tongue clicks. (You'll see.)

Luckily, in my half-asleep state I thought to e-mail the Tweet to myself to post here on RBtL:

In January of 2002," writes the neuroscientist Oliver Sacks, "I received a letter from Howard Engel, a Canadian novelist describing a strange problem." Engel's problem was so strange, I decided to create a short video to let you see his story. Our narrator and animator is San Francisco artist Lev Yilmaz.

On July 31, 2001, Engel woke up, dressed, made breakfast, and then went to the front door to get his newspaper. "I wasn't aware," he says in our NPR interview, "that it was any different from any other morning."

But it was. When he looked at the front page — it was the Toronto Globe and Mail, an English-language journal — the print on the page was unlike anything he had seen before. It looked vaguely "Serbo-Croatian or Korean," or some language he didn't know. Wondering if this was some kind of joke, he went to his bookshelf, pulled out a book he knew was in English, and it too was in the same gibberish.

Engel had suffered a stroke. It had damaged the part of his brain we use when we read, so he couldn't make sense of letters or words. He was suffering from what the French neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene calls "word blindness." His eyes worked. He could see shapes on a page, but they made no sense to him. And because Engel writes detective stories for a living (he authored the Benny Cooperman mystery series, tales of a mild-mannered Toronto private eye), this was an extra-terrible blow. "I thought, well I'm done as a writer. I'm finished."

In his letter to Oliver Sacks, Engel describes his stunning solution, or rather, his painfully executed semirecovery, which you can see in Lev's video.

Briefly put, Engel discovered that if he traced the printed gibberish on a page with his hand, if he simulated the movements that a writer makes as he writes, he could gradually get back the meaning of the words.

Try writing "cat" 20 times, and then on the 21st try, write "cat" in the air with your finger. You know as you write in the air that the motions you make equal "cat." This is called "motor memory." This specific set of strokes triggers the idea of "cat" in your brain.

Engel couldn't see words with his eyes. His visual cortex was broken. But he could "see" when he used the motor part of his brain, first by tracing letters on a page, then by "writing" those same letters in the air, and then, strangely, when he shifted to copying letters with his tongue on the roof of his mouth. Tongue-copying was the fastest.

Over the years, says Sacks, Engel has learned to read with his tongue, flicking the shape of the letters on his front teeth. Engel has reached the point where he can almost keep up with the subtitles in a foreign film. He says he can get about half the words before they flash off.

Read the entire article, see the illustrations/video, and hear the NPR Broadcast HERE


  1. Hey! I worked on that book with Peter!

  2. Oliver Sacks always covers the most interesting stories!