We think that the ability to read is a complicated, artificial process, but when's the last time you've seen a sign, in your native language, that you've chosen not to read? The Stroop Test shows how deep the ability to read runs through us.
There is no instinctual ability to read. Written words are shapes arbitrarily meant to represent sounds, and those sounds are generally arbitrarily assigned to actual objects or ideas. It takes people years of instruction and practice to learn how to read. Some people, with specific learning difficulties, struggle with the process for their entire lives. And yet the ability runs far deeper than the complicated and abstract nature of it suggests that it could. Service employees often complain that customers will walk past ten signs telling them where the restroom is to ask where the restroom is, but that's often the result of stubbornness or inattention. When people glance at a sign with a word, they generally read it automatically. Trying to look at a (simple) set of words without reading them is a little like the old mind trick, "Try not to think of an elephant." The moment the stimulus is there, the mind comprehends it.
An amazing test of this was published by John Ridley Stroop in 1935. The Stroop Test was simple. A person would look at a word and press a button indicating what color it was printed in — and they often got it wrong. It seems like this would be hard to fail. But the catch was this: the colored words spelled out the names of different colors. A word printed in yellow would spell out the word 'green.' A word printed in blue would spell out 'red.' And so on.
Given time, of course, people would figure out the color of the word, especially when asked specifically for it. But when pressed for time, they would automatically blurt out what the word said, even when the tester asked them for the color of the ink. The physical appearance of the word, the first thing that anyone could spot from afar, was blasted away by the need to read its meaning. People who have read 1984 have heard of doublespeak, the technique that an oppressive government used to erase the original meanings of words in order to brainwash people en masse. Could 'singlespeak,' the actual meaning of the word, be just as much of an indoctrinated brainwashing?
Top Image: Mo Riza