Imagine waking up one morning in a house filled with books and discovering you had forgotten how to read. This may seem a very unlikely scenario but it happened to Canadian crime writer Howard Engel in the year 2000.
Engel discovered he had suffered a stroke during the night and was diagnosed with a rare condition called alexia, also known as word-blindness. The stroke had effected his visual cortex, making it inaccessible for his brain to recognize letters, rendering it impossible for him to read.
However he soon discovered that while reading was no longer possible, he could still write. So write he did: in 2001 he published two books – more since then. Interstingly he could briefly read what he had just written, but within a few minutes even his own handwriting turn into a mystery to him.
As time went by Engel discovered if he allowed his hand to retrace the letters he couldn’t visually identify, his brain could translate the unrecognizable symbols through movement into words, and he could understand, read. Maybe slowly, but the world of reading was no longer a closed book to him.
Engel then developed a technique in which he traces the letters he sees on a pages with his tongue pressed up against his teeth. By doing so his brain identifies the movement and translates it, allowing him to read, still very slowly but no longer impossible.
This fascinating story was just one of the incredible tales world famous neurologist and author Dr. Oliver Sacks talked about in the unusual BBC documentary: The Man Who Forgot how to Read and Other Stories. The documentary looks at how we as humans translate the visual world around us and how it effects who we are.
Dr Oliver Sacks was an incredible inspiration for all who long to understand what makes our minds work. And while his recent death is a great loss to the world of Neurology his stories, like in the BBC documentary will live on.