Monday, June 28, 2010

Word Blindness and the Plastic Brain

NPR had a fascinating story last week about a man who woke up one morning and found that he had lost the ability to read. "The Writer Who Couldn't Read," by Robert Krulwich also appears in the June 28 edition of The New Yorker. In the story Howard Engel experiences a stroke that damages the part of his brain that recognizes symbols—notably the letters of our alphabet. His condition is called word blindness, or alexia.
Because Engel made his living as a mystery novel writer, this development was particularly painful.

Engel finds out that he can, with difficulty, reteach himself to read because the part of his brain that processes tasks of writing escaped the damage caused by the stroke. Now he reads by tracing letters on the page, either by touching the page with a pencil or, amazingly, tracing the letters on the roof of his mouth with his tongue. It is well worth a listen and a read, both because it's a well-told story and because it teaches something about
neuroplasticity, the concept that the brain can reshape and rewire itself to work around parts that have stopped working properly. After a little practice, it is much fun to work the word into conversations.

Click on the link above to see a version of the story with animated drawings by Lev Yilmaz. A longer version of the NPR story can be found by clicking this link. And, just to be complete about everything, you can find Oliver Sacks' description of the case in The New Yorker
(subscription required to see the whole piece).

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