The Frontal Cortex

Writing Sideways

It’s so easy to take our cultural forms for granted. We get so used to their particulars that we forget there is nothing inviolate about them. Movies can have sad endings, classical music can turn atonal and novelists can get self-referential. Such transgressions are the mark of cultural progress. (Or decadence, depending on your aesthetic preferences. Me? I like Jane Austen and Italo Calvino.)

But I’ve always assumed that there was only one way to write a letter, that the epistle was the sturdiest of cultural forms. But I was wrong. It turns out that, back in the 19th century, people engaged in cross-writing. It was a way of saving paper. Look, for instance, at this letter written by Henry James (I stole the image from a wonderful article in Slate by Megan Marshall):


I just wasted twenty minutes trying to figure out what the hell James was writing. I’ve given up. I think the part of my brain that decodes such scribble has completely atrophied. I suppose this is a natural consequence of spending my life in front a computer: human handwriting, especially when it’s written in layers, has become much, much harder to understand. Perhaps this paper from the new Neuroimage can help me understand what’s going on:

Reading normal and degraded words: Contribution of the dorsal and ventral visual pathways.

Cohen L, Dehaene S, Vinckier F, Jobert A, Montavont A.

Fast, parallel word recognition, in expert readers, relies on sectors of the left ventral occipito-temporal pathway collectively known as the visual word form area. This expertise is thought to arise from perceptual learning mechanisms that extract informative features from the input strings. The perceptual expertise hypothesis leads to two predictions: (1) parallel word recognition, based on the ventral visual system, should be limited to words displayed in a familiar format (foveal horizontal words with normally spaced letters); (2) words displayed in formats outside this field of expertise should be read serially, under supervision of dorsal parietal attention systems. We presented adult readers with words that were progressively degraded in three different ways (word rotation, letter spacing, and displacement to the visual periphery). Behaviorally, we identified degradation thresholds above which reading difficulty increased non-linearly, with the concomitant emergence of a word length effect on reading latencies reflecting serial reading strategies. fMRI activations were correlated with reading difficulty in bilateral occipito-temporal and parietal regions, reflecting the strategies required to identify degraded words. A core region of the intraparietal cortex was engaged in all modes of degradation. Furthermore, in the ventral pathway, word degradation led to an amplification of activation in the posterior visual word form area, at a level thought to encode single letters. We also found an effect of word length restricted to highly degraded words in bilateral occipitoparietal regions. Those results clarify when and how the ventral parallel visual word form system needs to be supplemented by the deployment of dorsal serial reading strategies.

In other words, my dorsal reading system has gone to shit.


  1. #1 Rachael
    February 12, 2008

    Oooh, cool. I can’t even begin to decipher what is written there. Too bad we’ve pretty much lost that talent, although, rmeebmer teh emial faowrrd form a lnog tmie ago? Appranelty tath’s a dfifeernt mchenaism.

    As an aside, I can’t spell backwards, but one day I tried writing backwards (mirror image) and realized I could do it. But I find it extremely difficult to read what I have written backwards without reinverting the text. How can I write it that way but not read it? This bugs me.

  2. #2 speedwell
    February 12, 2008

    I once won a bet in high school by writing upside down and backwards, with both hands simultaneously, while blindfolded. It sounds difficult, but doing it with both hands at the same time while blindfolded actually makes it much easier. Anyway, the trick is to visualize your writing as a series of pictures rather than chunks of meaning. You draw, rather than write, each letter.

  3. #3 Leisureguy
    February 12, 2008

    Even back in the day, cross-writing was not universally liked. From Charles Dodgson’s Eight or Nine Wise Words About Letter Writing includes this point:

    My ninth Rule. When you get to the end of a notesheet, and find you have more to say, take another piece of paper–a whole sheet, or a scrap, as the case may demand: but whatever you do, don’t cross! Remember the old proverb “Cross-writing makes cross reading“. “The old proverb?” you say, inquiringly. “How old?” Well, not so very ancient, I must confess. In fact, I’m afraid I invented it while writing this paragraph!

    I thought you were actually referring to how lefthanders write italic handwriting using a regular italic point: they turn the writing sheet sideways (top to the right) and write vertically down (across, in effect) the page, which puts the point at the correct slant for shading.

  4. #4 John McKay
    February 12, 2008

    I’ve seen these letters before. When you can handle them, they are not that difficult to read. Your mind filters out the vertical writing as easily as it would a coffee stain or watermark–it’s just so many smudges. When you finish reading one direction, you turn the page ninety degrees and the new writing comes into focus as the old writing fades into the background. It’s an amazing experience.

  5. #5 BRC
    February 12, 2008

    Just don’t get into historical archives — not only is there the cross-writing to de-haze, but the handwriting itself is often infuriating to decipher. One fond memory of pouring over letters at the state historical society was having about eight of us passing around a letter trying to figure out if the guy was “saving sex [for?] slaves” or “showing sick slaves” around his plantation. Either way, not good; and either way, didn’t make much sense. Plus made all the more difficult because the letters were written over/cross-hatched just as your James sample above.

  6. #6 The Ridger
    February 12, 2008

    I thought you going to write about something else. I remember how startled I was reading a Japanese novel to have the long letter one character wrote another described as “five feet long”. On a scroll, obviously. Then I spent an embarrassingly long amount of time trying to figure out how the heck he knew where to start … d’oh. Of course you unroll it on the left, not the right.

  7. #7 Epistaxis
    February 12, 2008

    It’s like when people reply to e-mail and inline the original message above (or below, if they’re clueless) the new text.

  8. #8 Daniel E. Friedman
    February 13, 2008

    Wow. Suddenly I can read the hand written prescription that my doctor prescribed to me for my cold. The posted picture is a great conversation piece.

  9. #9 Apium
    February 13, 2008

    I knew about cross-writing from the Little House on the Prairie novels, where they saved every scrap of paper and had to turn straw into logs to survive the harsh winter. Frontier ingenuity wins out.