Overdose Edition,

Overdose Edition #5: Reading and Rose-Colored Glasses: The Irlen Syndrome

March 31, 2017

Not all vision problems have origins as simple as a bad curvature in the eye.

Meares-Irlen Syndrome is a visual condition affecting millions of people, making it difficult for them to perceive hard edges on flat surfaces, various patterns of light and color, and turning visual reality into “something like a fun-house world…but one that isn’t fun.”  So explains Helen Irlen, one of the co-discoverers of the syndrome, along with Olive Meares (who identified and described the condition independently at about the same time).

All this comes with a caveat: Not everyone agrees that Meares-Irlen Syndrome even exists.  While there is no doubt that millions of people are affected by difficulties with reading that are based in the brain’s visual system, and that some people handle edge-perception and areas of high contrast better than others… Science does not agree that Meares-Irlen Syndrome is all one thing, or that there are necessarily any mechanistic similarities in the problems that Helen Irlen has treated in clients around the world.

Seeing pictures in my head…

It’s natural to think of the eyes when we think of vision, and problems of vision as being problems with the eyes — but eyes are just the tip of the visual iceberg.  Many neurological disorders in the visual cortex of the brain can create bizarre and impactful effects in what people see, even if their eyes are perfect.  (Charles Bonnet Syndrome, mentioned in the episode, is a compelling example.)

According to Helen Irlen, who is the author of Reading by the Colors, among other books, Irlen Syndrome is based on processing problems within the brain’s vision centers, often including syncing issues — where the visual information about certain color spectra arrives slightly early or late compared to other colors.  This causes chaos as the brain tries to make sense of mistimed information, often perceiving motion even when there is none.  This can lead to patterns that are “tiring” to look at, and static words that appear to be “moving” on a page.

The Irlen Method of treating this condition is startling in its simplicity: She side-steps the problem by filtering out various wavelengths of light with colored lenses.  This removes the mistimed inputs to the visual cortex and creates a reduced (but consistent) data stream for the brain to process.

Controversial or not, some people swear by this treatment, and Helen Irlen is a passionate and enthusiastic speaker on the topic.  It’s a conversation worth a listen — with open eyes and an open mind.  😉

If you are interested in exploring the syndrome for yourself, you can access a whole battery of different Irlen Self Tests Here.

One comment

  1. ben says:

    The Irlen test reminds me a bit of Vilayanur Ramachandran’s test for synesthesia, where numbers would be camouflage against the background, and only someone who sees numbers in colors would see them pop out! He also has great lectures about how creativity/intelligence can be seen as a form of synesthesia, where normally unconnected parts of the brain are wired together to see unusual metaphors.

    It’s interesting how much variation there is brain to brain.. I think the blue/gold dress illusion from a couple years ago was a good example!

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