The Writer Who Couldn’t Read
2010-06-21 0:00

By Robert Krulwich NPR.org



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.



Video from: YouTube.com

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.

Sacks describes Engel’s struggles in a forthcoming book, The Mind’s Eye, to be published later this year. The surprise here is that brains are more plastic than one would suppose; even if one part of a brain is compromised by a stroke, a person can sometimes improvise and get another still healthy part of the brain to substitute and help out.

Engel is writing again. He continues to write Benny Cooperman novels and in 2007 published a memoir, The Man Who Forgot How to Read.

"He has found a way to remain a man of letters," Sacks writes. "That he was able to do so is a testament to many things: the dedication and skill of his therapists in rehab, his own determination to read again, and the adaptability of the human brain."

You can hear Engel describe his problems in greater detail in our NPR broadcast. Just hit the "listen" button at the top of the page [link].

[Lev Yilmaz has created cartoons for [NPR] before. His last effort recounted an early attempt to discover how much heat a person, a dog and an egg can endure. The dog won.

Oliver Sacks’ newest book, The Mind’s Eye, will explore different kinds of blindness, including his own loss of sight in one eye.]


Article from: NPR.org

Image: Lev Yilmaz for NPR




Also tune into:

Marcel Kuijsten - Julian Jaynes, the Bicameral Mind & The Origin of Consciousness

Marcel Kuijsten - Entheogens, Dreams, the Unconscious & Neurology

Penney Peirce - Frequency, Intuition, Time & Dreams

Anthony Peake - Cheating The Ferryman & The Daemon

Neil Hague - The Rise of the True Human Being, Art & Unlocking the Imagination

Bruce Lipton - The Biology of Belief

Bruce Lipton - The Biology of Belief Continued

Lynne McTaggart - The Intention Experiment



Related Articles
Seeing Impostors: When Loved Ones Suddenly Aren’t
Can’t Remember Faces? Blame Your Genes
Hearing Things: When Sounds Come Unbidden
Howard Engel: ’The Man Who Forgot How To Read’ (Audio)
Out of your head: Leaving the body behind
Magnetic field found to stimulate brain cells
Howard Engle
Masterstroke: Man who couldn’t even draw stickmen wakes from brain surgery... as a talented artist
How it feels to have a stroke (Video)
Does Aspirin prevent Heart Attack and Strokes?


Latest News from our Front Page

60 Years of Research Links Gluten Grains to Schizophrenia
2015-03-31 1:05
Does the consumption of gluten-containing grains contribute to psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia? Believe it or not, this question has been asked for well over 60 years by researchers who stumbled upon evidence that the removal of gluten from the diet results in improved symptoms, or conversely, that gluten grain consumption leads to higher prevalence of both neurological and psychiatric problems. Reports ...
A Sour Deception: Citric Acid Comes From GMO Black Mold, Not Fruit
2015-03-30 23:32
Just what is your food made of, anyway? Try industrial synthesis, genetically modified mold secretions, hydrochloric acid, mercury-contaminated caustic soda, ferrocyanide… and, of course, lots of GMO corn. If common ingredients like “citric acid” and “ascorbic acid (Vitamin C)” sound normal and familiar enough that you practically conjure up an image of the flourishing orchard they were grown in – then ...
Thousands of migrants dumped on Britain as French wriggle out of border promise
2015-03-30 19:56
Thousands of migrants could be dumped on Britain’s doorstep if France tears up a historic border agreement, it was claimed last night. Officials have vowed to do “everything in their power” to wriggle out of a treaty moving the UK border to Calais. The besieged town’s mayor Natacha Bouchart is prepared to spark a major diplomatic row by opening the frontier ...
Richard III laid to rest at Leicester Cathedral
2015-03-30 18:36
King Richard III was today laid to rest at Leicester Cathedral - more than 500 years after his death in battle. The monarch, who reigned from 1483 to 1485, was the last of the Plantagenet dynasty. Actor Benedict Cumberbatch read a poem by Carol Ann Duffy during the service. Also in attendance was Robert Lindsay, who played Richard III in a version ...
Sweden - A new paradise for Romani beggars
2015-03-30 17:33
Thanks to the European Union and freedom of movement that follows with membership Sweden has been flooded with gypsies from Eastern Europe. Most member states have cracked down hard on the phenomenon of organized begging with legislation and forceful evictions so the Romani (colloquially known as Gypsies) who are engaged in this venture have moved their business to the country where ...
More News »