Monday, November 14, 2005

From the Dept. of PSYCHOlOGY

In response to some questions I had about the psychology behind the lowercase L phenomenon, friend and Research Fellow in Neuropsychology, Bart D. Brigidi, Ph.D. agreed to an interview and allowed me to publish in the article below.

lowercase L: What do you think of this lowercase L business?

Dr. Brigidi:
The lowercase "l" is an interesting occurrence and maybe not as understudied as one would think. From a neuropsychological perspective, errors in writing fall under the umbrella term of dysgraphia, which means that somene has a writing disability or disorder -using the Latin dys which means "a difficulty with" and graphia which means the act of writing. Dysgraphia is not uncommon for individuals with aphasia or childhood learning disorders. It usually refers to inconsistencies in letters, irregular letter sizes and shapes, mixing case or cursive with print, and incomplete or unfinished letters. This type of deficit must be out of sync with the person's intelligence level and rarely occur in isolation outside of other learning impairments such as dyslexia. Very important is that dysgraphia must be differentiated from laziness, too.

But why does dysgraphia occur?

Yes. The why. I knew that was coming. Recent thought about the "why" of switching case has pointed to the potential role of faulty inhibitory mechanisms in the brain. For the lowercase "l" phenomenon, this would mean that someone was unable to inhibit the intrusion (unwanted thought) that a lowecase "l" was correct. Then after writing this error, it becomes an issue of awareness followed by the issue of what to do with the error if it is noticed. Given awareness and why someone would not change the error, who knows, I would guess time contraints, laziness, "good enough" mentality, not having an eraser, or some combination of all these would factor in to why the error is not changed. Aphasic patients can have interesting dissocations in the neural circuits governing writing and speaking, so that is a population that has traditionally been studied with respect to this phenomenon.

How common is the lowercase L syndrome?

How often does this happen is a good question. Short answer is I am not sure. And I am not sure its prevalence is known. However, it is thought to occur at least as often as reading disorders, which would mean that dysgraphia, in all its forms, occurs in approximatley 4% of the population. This is a low baserate phenomenon,and the percentage of people specifically exhibting the lowercase "l" phenomena is likley much lower. As far as I know, gender biases have not been specifically studied for errors in caseness. But there is data that shows that learning disorders in general occur in boys two to four times as much as in girls.

Is there a cure?

I knew you would ask me this, too. Treatment for the lowercase "l" phenomenon would likely first assume that this is a problem that somebody feels causes some impairment in their social, occupational, or academic functioning. The frequency and impact of the switching are also key. If I leave a sticky for a co-worker that says "See you at the meeting Later," there is probably little harm done. However, if I gave a presentation with repeated "l" mistakes or I was completing a job application, then there might be more consequences.

There are treatments available for dysgraphia and dyslexia. Those individuals with known or suspected language problems should meet with a professional trained to treat these problems, such as a reading specialist, speech and langage pathologist, or neuropsychologist.

Bart D. Brigidi, Ph.D.

Research Fellow in Neuropsychology
The Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Center at Duke
Duke University Medical Center

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