Sunday, November 29, 2009

On Pointiness

(screen grab from Stamp and Shout)

I've seen the Coexist bumper sticker above several times in the last week. I don't know how long it's been around, but a thought struck me the last time I saw it: there's no 'x'. All of the symbols used actually contain a version of the letter they are replacing, except the Star of David. There's no actual X figure within that symbol. Rather, it's the prevalence of pointiness that allows it to make for a suitable X replacement. I wonder if there is a different cognitive process at work? While we are reading the other letters, perhaps we are not actually reading the Star of David as an X, but rather engaging in some form of visual approximation (at least at first). Similar issues arise with textings like l8ter. Perhaps neuroscientist and reading expert Stanislas Dehaene has an answer in his new book Reading in the Brain. In Jonah Leher's review of that book, he suggests a possible answer:

One of the most intriguing findings of this new science of reading is that the literate brain actually has two distinct pathways for reading. One pathway is direct and efficient, and accounts for the vast majority of reading comprehension -- we see a group of letters, convert those letters into a word, and then directly grasp the word's meaning. However, there's also a second pathway, which we use whenever we encounter a rare and obscure word that isn't in our mental dictionary. As a result, we're forced to decipher the sound of the word before we can make a guess about its definition, which requires a second or two of conscious effort.

Perhaps this second pathway is the route needed to decipher the Star of David as X and 8 as -ate-. Just wondering out loud...

Oh, and btw, after staring at it a moment, I see that my initial reaction was wrong. There are actually four six Xs in the Star of David (thanks Q. Pheevr!), two each between each set of parallel lines. It takes a bit of magic picture blurry eye technique to see them (there's a more scientific term for that, right?). However, I doubt those Xs are recognized during the initial reading of the bumper sticker.


Q. Pheevr said...

There are actually four Xs in the Star of David, two each between each set of parallel lines.

That makes six, actually.

Chris said...

yep, good catch. When I did an image search I found different styles (particularly with thinner lines) and the Xs are more easily identifiable.

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