I was born Gereformeerd. Gereformeerd is or was in my youth a denomination within the Dutch Protestant orbit stemming from the Calvinistic response to 15th-century Catholicism. While keeping our distance from denominational expressions of Christianity my immediate family and I still keep to some of the observances ensconced in the wider Christian tradition. For Christmas I asked for and received copies of Stanislas Dehaene’s recent book Reading in the Brain: the Science and Evolution of a Human Invention, and Oliver Sacks’s The Mind's Eye. The Mind's Eye describes, among other things, the case of Howard Engel, the Canadian detective story writer who lost his ability to read due to a lesion caused by a stroke, in what Dehaene, the author of the other book, and his research associates have dubbed the Visual Word Form Area of the brain (VWFA). In Reading in the Brain the VWFA is called “The Brain's Letterbox”. Reading in the Brain describes: how we read; the VWFA; the neuronal basis for reading; the evolution of writing; learning to read; the dyslexic brain; reading and symmetry; the author’s own pet theory of neuronal recycling; and it speculates about neuronal recycling as the basis of culture.
Along the way Dehaene forcefully (his word) blasts (my word) the Whole Language approach to reading instruction, mostly on account of the apparently well-documented damage it’s "Whole-Word" instructional bias has caused to literacy. The bug-a-boo is the approach’s sidelining of the systematic inculcation of phonemic awareness. "Cognitive psychology directly refutes any notion of teaching via a 'global" or "whole language" method." Dehaene incidentally keeps his description of this method vague.
I haven’t finished reading the entire book, but noticed in passing that, as part of this critique, Dehaene mentions that the emphasis on the global shape of words “also invaded the world of typography, where the term “bouma” (named after the Dutch psychologist Herman Bouma), was coined to refer to the contours of words.” Deheane adds, “In the hope of improving readability, typographers intentionally designed fonts that created the most distinctive visual “boumas.” His source for this observation is — wouldn't you know it — Kevin Larson's 2004 “The Science of Word Recognition.”
I of course find this somewhat disappointing because the slight involves a misreading of what Bouma Shape was actually coined to refer to — something more than “contour” or the “global shape” of words. Perhaps the slight or slam is excusable, but digging deeper into both the psychological literature where it originated (Insup and Martin M. Taylor’s The Psychology of Reading), or Paul Saenger’s Space Between Words, or the peregrinations on typophile surrounding the term might have induced Dehaene to explore the matter a bit more fully.
The book is wonderfully provocative though, and it has it’s uses. In some places the language positively sparkles. And it has an endorsement from Oliver Sacks. Moreover, it’s a fairly manageable and, for the most part, internally cohesive compendium of a host of empirical rummaging in various domains. It’s also a bit of patch-work in places, in that there are disparities between several of the ways of seeing reading that Dehaene recruits to build his case. For example, Dehaene passes along the interactive activation model but his own local-combination detection based approach doesn’t fully mesh with the interactive activation account’s basic premises.
But somewhere in the section on “The Brain’s Letterbox” I had to take a break. The reason's were: 1) my ever-mounting frustration with the — to me — too rudimentary notion of how words are encoded in the brain — i.e., according to their spellings — became insurmountable, as did 2) an intense feeling that I had to make a more significant concession to the parallel letter recognition scheme than I had felt able to make before. In other words, I felt I needed to rethink the “inhibition of incipient recognitions for letters” idea I had found in Edmund Burke Huey. I felt the need to try and plot a “convergence of perspectives.”
The long and short of this is that my thinking is entering a bit of a new phase. Basically the idea is that on the new iteration of my scheme, categorical perception at the letter level can and does occur, but it doesn’t normally or necessarily lead to an independent downstream labeling in the higher regions of the brain. This is a kind of paradox that might require further elaboration. A similacrum of parallel letter recognition happens, but parallel letter recognition as currently schematized isn’t the central or foundational mechanism. The central mechanism remains for me the variety of “feature analytic processing” or “simultaneous co-activation of letter parts” I tried to describe in the recent “Monitor on Psychology” thread, and prior to that in TypeCon Atlanta, and the central event for me remains Bill’s notion of matrix resonance.
I’m thinking of starting a typophile blog page to describe 1) how I now see the structure of the underlying matrix — the inner bouma, if you will, 2) how I think it becomes established, and 3) how the connection with it is made in normal reading contexts.
I think I might call my scheme “distal ring plus proximate ring coding” or some such thing. DRAPE-coding for short.
I'll do that when I get a chance, and if my intuitions about this stick.