Reading to children was a source of fulfillment in the life of M.P., a 40-year-old aunt, kindergarten teacher, and reading specialist. Whether in the classroom, the reading room, or the living room, M.P. found joy in the dual role of teacher and storyteller. For her, it was an important means of relating to those under her care. But all of that changed when, on a Thursday morning, M.P. found herself standing at the front of her class and holding in her hands an indecipherable mystery.
It was the attendance sheet. The same sheet she had used for years, and to hear M.P. tell it, it might as well have been covered in hieroglyphs. Moments later, she found that her lesson plans, which she had spent a distinguished career in devising, were equally incomprehensible. By this time, panic had begun to set in, but the watershed moment came as she surveyed the task she had set for herself earlier in the week: Halloween was just around the corner, and she had a classroom to decorate. “I couldn’t figure it out, which is not like me,” she recalls, a sadness creeping into her voice. “How can you not figure out Halloween?”
What was was happening?
“Alexia without agraphia, also commonly referred to as “word blindness,” is a rare neurologic syndrome in which patients lose the ability to read but can still write and comprehend the spoken word. “
Strangely, however, the sight of some words provoke emotions in M.P., although she is not conscious of knowing the word meaning:
Nor are such intuitions uncommon for M.P. when looking at written words, for although she cannot read a word by sight, it may nevertheless elicit emotions that seem surprisingly appropriate. For instance, when shown the word “dessert” in writing, M.P. exclaimed, “Oooh, I like that!”
I find this dissociation between feeling words and understanding them the most remarkable part of this case.
It suggests that either a) M.P.’s ability to decode writing is intact, on some subconscious level, which might require a revision to neuroscience of language textbooks, or b) words can elicit emotions by some kind of a conditioned association, requiring no understanding (or even power of understanding), which would have big implications for“subliminal messaging”.