The Spinning Girl from Cambridge University

In general I love how the internet makes it possible to spread information and ideas around the world. For example, some shows on TED can be a real enlightenment.

But I get very annoyed when wrong claims become common knowledge just because they were blasted all over the internet. My two “favourite” stories of this kind are these:

1. Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy

“Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.”

In 2003 everyone had it in the mailbox. It was translated in every language and it was printed in newspapers. Last week it was mentioned again in a “scientific” TV show here in Germany. They didn’t provide any background information, they just repeated every word of this well-known text. Shouldn’t they at least call up the University and check the source? They should!

They would have been surprised, because so far not even the people working there have ever heard of such a research done at the university of Cambridge. But as always: There is some truth to that. The phenomenon is known for many years. In 1976 Graham Rawlinson explained this effect of letter randomisation in his PhD thesis at at Nottingham(!) University. It came back to light when this letter of Rawlinson was published in the magazine New Scientist. So it’s easy to image what might have happened: Someone probably read this letter by Rawlinson, and maybe the next day he wanted to try it out and sent the first of those emails. He just couldn’t remember the name of Rawlinson or the university.

This story hasn’t done much harm, but this one is worse:

2. The Right Brain vs Left Brain Test

This image appeared in fall 2007 all over the internet. It may have startet at this news website. Again, the text doesn’t mention any scientific source. It just tells you that this test will tell you which side of your brain you use most. And it goes on with an equally questionably list of attributes that are supposed to be connected to the two brain hemispheres. Now that’s something! A simple visual test that will tell you what kind of person you are. Isn’t that amazing?

People got pretty excited about it. It was discussed in thousands of forums and weblogs and it was turned into a facebook application. And people swear it works. They have tested it with their families and they say the list of attributes really match, depending on which direction one will see the girl spinning.

That’s really amazing when you know that this picture is not about brain hemispheres at all. It is not even a test. Before this picture was spread as a brain test, it appeared on other website in its real context: Optical Illusions.

It’s nothing more than clever and animated version of the optical illusions we all know. Like the one with the vase and the faces. The only difference is: Because it is animated it is harder (but certainly not impossible) to switch between the two possible ways to interpret the silhouette.

This is what Dr. Steven Novella, neurologist at Yale University School of Medicine says about the news article that claims, that this test is about brain hemispheres:

“This news article, like many others, ignores the true source of this optical illusion and instead claims it is a quick test to see if you use more of your right brain or left brain. This is utter nonsense, but the “right-brain/left brain” thing is in the public consciousness and won’t be going away anytime soon. “



  1. kai 2008/02/07 at 1:33 PM #

    jetzt immer auf englisch?

  2. ralfherrmann 2008/02/07 at 1:48 PM #

    Bin mir unschlüssig. Die Mehrheit der Besucher kommt nicht aus Deutschland …

  3. Chris G 2008/02/07 at 9:00 PM #

    I was going to suggest that more people should go verify this stuff at Snopes, ore people should read Snopes, but I don’t see either story there. I think you may have out Snoped, Snopes!

    Even if the stories are not quite right, they’re still both good ones. I remember the first time I saw each of them and both times I thought, ‘that’s pretty cool.’


  4. A.D. 2009/07/11 at 7:18 AM #

    to see the woman dance to the right , block your right eye and look only with the left eye…and to see her change to the left, look only with your right eye…give it a few seconds too!!!


Leave a Reply