So a medievalist walks into a conference filled with M.D.’s, computer science people, developmental and cognitive psychologists, and a bunch of forensic document examiners. That in a nutshell was my trip to the International Graphonomics Society in Dijon almost two weeks ago now. The group is interested in various aspects of handwriting such as fine motor control, developmental issues with respect to handwriting, and cognitive issues related thereto.
Medievalists might remember that in Space between Words Paul Saenger used studies on eye movement during reading, thats is fixations and saccades, to inform his work on the relation between developments in writing and reading. I had been looking haphazardly for something similar for writing and not found anything. At IGS, a group from the School of Human Biosciences at LaTrobe University in Australia presented some preliminary work on just this thing. The paper, ‘Some relationships between eye movements and handwriting’ (J. Sebastian, D.K. Rogers and J.C. Sita), examined people writing individual words and their signatures. In presenting the preliminary observations, Sebastian noted that nothing along these lines had yet been done.
Some of the results of research on eye movements since Saeger’s book, especially those textual critics might be interested in, are not so surprising. Short, high-frequency, and highly predictable words are skipped more often than are long words, low-frequency words, and words with low predictability. Additionally, eye fixations are short before short, high-frequency words and longer before the opposite. In short, it seems that readers process what is in the parafoveal field of vision during fixations and skip the information that they predict will not be necessary for overall meaning.
If research into the way the eyes work when reading can be couple with this ongoing research into the eyes during handwriting, perhaps it can be used to develop a better understanding of the process of scribal copying. Obviously, not the practical outcome that the psychologists hope for, but it would be a real boon for medievalists!