Thinking and Reading Comfort

Thinking and Reading Comfort

 

Two thought systems

I am in the process of reading “Thinking fast and slow”, by Nobel prize-winning author Daniel Kahnemann. The whole book is a fascinating insight into the workings of the human mind, and how we operate on two distinct levels: system one, which is our instinctive, “autopilot” mode; and system two, which you could call our rational over-ride; the processes of analytical thought which, when we allow it the energy that it needs to function effectively, monitors and controls the instinctive “gut-thinking” promptings of system one. System two needs mental effort; system one operates at an automatic level, feeding our mental circuits instantly with much of the information we need for daily life – “I recognise that face”, “I know that word”, “I understand that sign” etc. There is a lot more to the book, (if you’re interested you can check out the you tube video on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CjVQJdIrDJ0 ), but what interests me here is how Kahnemann demonstrates a clear connection between reading comfort and thinking levels.

The  cockpit

cockpit

System one is like a cockpit, which maintains and updates current answers to key questions, such as: Is anything new going on? Is there a threat? Are things going well? Should my attention be redirected? Is more effort needed for this task? etc. In assessing this constant stream of inputs, system one is continually deciding whether or not more effort is required from system two. One of the “dials” monitored in this figurative cockpit measures cognitive ease, and its range is between “Easy” and “Strained:’ Easy is a sign that things are going well – no threats, no major news, no need to redirect attention or mobilize effort. Cognitive strain indicates that a problem exists, which will require increased mobilisation of System two.

Many inputs (including the mood you’re in, the familiarity of the task etc) affect this neurological “dial”, but an important one that relates to reading is the clarity of the font. The process of reading familiar words that are clear on the page is a system one activity operating in the “cognitive ease” range, which leaves system two free to work on what the text is about. However if the presentation of the text causes the dial to register cognitive strain, system two is activated to help decipher the font, which suggests that the cognitive resources available for understanding what the words mean are diminished  – especially for someone with dyslexia who has multi-tasking  difficulties.

Font size

This has important implications in at least two areas. One is the question of font size and font type in children’s text books and examination papers. Research by Wilkins et al shows that typefaces for children become too small too quickly: “Sentences presented in a font of a size larger than is typical for use in material for 5-year olds were comprehended by 7–8-year-olds more rapidly than those of a more conventional size. The difference in size approximated 19% and it resulted in an increase in reading speed of 9%. (Typography for children may be inappropriately designed, Journal of Research in Reading Vol 32 2009, UKLA). This increase in reading speed was statistically highly significant.

On the same issue, I spoke to a lady on the phone just yesterday, who was concerned about her 14 year old daughter’s progress at school. She mentioned in the course of the conversation that her school had reduced their test papers from A4 to A5 page format, with a consequent reduction in font size. Wilkins’s research cited above goes on to recommend 14 pt  (this is 14pt) as the optimum size for school texts. Shrinking A4 pages to A5, for the sake of saving paper, will obviously reduce the font size significantly. The implications for cognitive ease are clear. If school testing results are to be a clear reflection of a child’s ability to think, it is critical that font size and clarity are addressed.

Visual Stress

The second issue brings me on to my pet topic, which is visual stress – the experience of discomfort and text distortions that many people experience when reading black text against a white background. Huang et al (2003) suggest that a strong sensorial stimulation – such as a dense written text – might lead to a “reduction in the efficiency of the inhibitory mechanisms in the visual cortex, resulting in an excessive excitation of the cortical neurons, and thus causing illusions and distortions.”*  Wilkins and Evans later proposed (2010) that coloured overlays are effective because “they distribute this excessive excitation and thus mitigate the symptoms of visual stress, thus improving written text processing and reading.” In other words, as is now widely accepted and the many thousands of people who use tinted lenses and coloured overlay products would testify, reading against a coloured background tinted to suit an individual’s preference can move the cognitive ease dial from “strained” to “easy”.

And so the two areas of research come together, like an overlay on a page, even, with an inescapable conclusion:  if text clarity and font size are indicators of cognitive ease or cognitive strain, what is the effect of visual stress on our ability to think about what we are reading? How often do we read something, and it just doesn’t “sink in”? If this is a result of cognitive strain, we may be experiencing it because we are tired, or preoccupied, or because the ideas are unfamiliar, or because the text is faint or too small – or it may just be that we need to be reading against a different coloured background.

*This principal is known as “cortical hyperexcitability” and is the science behind the  coloured overlays, reading rulers and screen tinting software that we supply.

Bob Hext   Jan 2018

Coloured overlays, bad science, and the B B C (The Windscreen Analogy).

Last week the BBC reported on a study by researchers from Bristol and Newcastle which cast doubt on the efficacy of using coloured overlays to help with reading difficulties. Now that the storm  has died down a bit, I thought it’s time I put in my penn’th (is that how you spell it?).

“Dyslexia not linked to eyesight”, trumpets Sean Coughlan of the BBC. Absolutely right. But who said it was? Therefore coloured overlays don’t work for dyslexia, infer the researchers. Indeed they don’t. However, what they do work for is visual stress, which happens to be a condition of the visual cortex that quite a lot of dyslexic people suffer from, but which has no direct connection with any of the ophthalmic data that the researchers analysed.

Basically there are four separate threads here: Dyslexia, the eyes, coloured overlays, and visual stress (linked with the visual cortex). Because (despite the efforts of Bruce Evans, Arnold Wilkins and other academics), confusion and ignorance still generally prevail over the relationship between dyslexia and visual stress, the researchers have looked at their data on eye conditions (short-sightedness, convergence problems etc) and responded to questions from concerned parents with the following logic:

“We find no statistical correlation between dyslexia and eye problems, therefore a coloured filter can’t make any difference to how words appear to the reader” .

I was trying to think of something that would illustrate the failings of this logic, and decided it was a bit like saying “The demister in your car doesn’t affect the rain on the windscreen, so you’re wasting your time using it on the condensation.”

If you don’t make sure your car windscreen is free of condensation, you run the risk of crashing your car. Sadly, some parents will have listened to the bad science promulgated by the BBC, and run the risk of crashing their child’s reading as a result. And the BBC will be responsible for the crash. You can phonic a child to death, but they will never read with ease and comfort until the words stop moving around – and in many cases the only way to achieve that is by reading through colour, because nothing else deals with the hyper-excitation of the visual cortex that causes visual stress.

Incidentally the Daily Mail, who picked up on this story as well, ran an article on our reading rulers a few years ago entitled “Now you can read through colour”. Obviously it made a good story at the time – 2008, I think it was. Now, in 2015, it makes a good story to say the opposite. Hello? Is anyone out there interested in the truth?

Bob Hext, 5th June 2015.

Conflicting theories about Visual Stress

In his comment on my (fairly) recent post on “academic arguments and anecdotal evidence”, Philip Jones referred to the conflicting views of two academics, namely Professors Arnold Wilkins and John Stein, who put forth differing theories on the neurological causes of Visual Stress. I appreciated Philip’s comment: I don’t agree with him, but it’s interesting on a site like this to hear what other people have to say.

I am not a scientist myself – I used to be a  schoolteacher, and now I run a business, and I have to admit that I very quickly feel out of my depth in scientific discussions. As I have already made clear: if a lot of people, with no axe to grind, all report a common experience (in this case that, for some people, reading through colour alleviates distortions and discomfort when reading), then for me that is more real than analysis and more analysis of data. If you fly high enough above a forest to see the whole landscape, you lose sight of the trees that make it up – but it doesn’t mean they are no longer there.

Anyway – conflicting theories. Unfortunately I haven’t got time (no, really!) to explain them at the moment, but Wilkins (Essex University) suggests that Visual Stress is caused by “Cortical Hyperexcitablility”, and Stein (Oxford) theorises that the cause is “Magnocellular deficit”. The Cortical Hyperexcitablility model proposes that the correct tint to alleviate visual stress in an individual can be one from a wide range of colours across the spectrum; the  Magnocellular Deficit model suggests that the only colours that “work” are blue and yellow.

We (Crossbow Education) sell coloured overlays – thousands of them, every year. Our records of colours selected by thousands of customers consistently show, year on year, practically the same percentage of our ten tints sold. The figures are so consistent that they have statistical significance.  By far the biggest number sold are blue and yellow, but the point is that we sell thousands of the others as well – purple, pink, green etc.Visual Stress is perceived as a syndrome (often known as “Meares-Irlen syndrome), that is a collection of signs and symptoms that are observed in, and characteristic of, a single condition. Right now I have an itch on my leg. My skin is in an irritated condition. Is it caused by my varicose vein (yes I am that old)? Am I reacting to the detergent my wife used when she washed these trousers? Do I have an insect bite? These are all real causes of an irritated skin condition, and there are many more.

Generalising very broadly, there are more than twice as many people using blue and yellow overlays that any other colour. Is it possible that there is a condition called Magnocellular Deficit, which causes the symptoms of visual stress and which is remedied by reading through yellow or blue coloured overlays, and another condition called Cortical Hyperexcitability, also causing the same symptoms, and which is remedied by reading through a wide range of colours which also includes blue and yellow?

Arnold Wilkins and John Stein are men of great intelligence and integrity, who have come to their conclusions through thorough and painstaking research. As I said, I am not a scientist; but rather than seeing their conflicting explanations as cancelling each other out – and therefore destroying the scientific validity of using coloured overlays and tinted lenses to improve reading experience – I think that they could both be right. There isn’t just one scientific reason why reading through colour appears to benefit about 20% of the population to varying degrees: there are two.

Bob Hext, 10 Feb 2015

Academic Arguments and Anecdotal Evidence

http://bit.ly/Yzy1L7

I don’t normally get involved in the fallout from academic arguments, but on this occasion I will, because, like Mark (http://beermonstermark.wordpress.com/2014/08/21/visual-stress/), I feel that this needs a response.

You can look through both ends of a portable telescope – it will either magnify what you are looking at, or make it practically disappear. It’s the same with figures. Depending on what position  you want to justify, you choose your data accordingly. So for example global warming is happening, or it isn’t. Drinking a certain amount of red wine is good for you, or it isn’t. Coloured overlays and reading rulers can make a difference to some people’s reading experience, or not. There is actually a wealth of accumulated evidence from 20 years top level academic research to say that they do, plenty of which is peer reviewed – if anybody who wants to look at it, just click on the link in the footnote below. The question is, what do you want to believe?

As one of the people responsible for the significant increase in awareness of Visual Stress over the last decade, the following (alongside the compelling scientific evidence from Essex University, Oxford University and elsewhere) is what I believe. It comes from a seven-year old girl called Maddy, and was given to me by her dyslexia tutor who is a senior professional at a highly respected teaching college:

“ …. The words look different, they won’t stay still and then I start to see ‘rivers in the text’ when I try to  concentrate on text books at my school.  Sometimes it looks like the words are almost 3D and with little lights behind them.  I try blinking a lot to get the words back into focus and then sometimes I even see colours round the text.  But then when I started to use the blue reading ruler, the “weirdness” went away …”

Ah, but there’s a problem, isn’t there? This is merely anecdotal. Maddy doesn’t exist in the cloud of figures that swirl around research like midge swarms. But she has a face, and a story; and I’m sure we could arrange for the people who said “manipulation of the visual system using colour to facilitate reading lacks scientific support” to meet her, or her tutor, if they wished. Or maybe  the American Academy for Pediatrics, Council for Children with Disabilities, American Academy of Ophthalmology, American Association for Pediatric Ophthalmology and Strabismus and the American Association of Certified Orthoptists, who concluded that “… scientific evidence does not support the efficacy of … special tinted filters or lenses in improving long term educational performance” would like to meet the little boy that Mark quoted who, when he looked at text through a blue overlay, said “Is that what you mean by a word? Can I start learning to read now?”

We designed the Eye Level Reading Ruler ten years ago now. There are thousands more stories like Maddy’s out there, of lives that have been changed during that time because “the weirdness went away”.  We hear some of them, when people have the time to write to us, but mostly they exist in the results from schools who assess all their weak readers for visual stress and see significant increases in reading levels when the overlays have been given out; or in the research project from a London University dept of psychology (over 30% increase in reading speed in some children) that wasn’t accepted for peer review because apparently 72 subjects was not enough. To you 72, even though you apparently don’t exist, you know better, and I salute you!

One of our staff sent me an amusing post a few months ago. It went something like this: “To the optimist and the pessimist: While you two were busy arguing over the glass of water, I drank it!Signed, the Opportunist”. Whatever the arguments, there is only one truth. No doubt the midges will continue to swarm. And while they do, the “weirdness” will carry on going away as more people discover how filtering out specific wavelengths of light can neutralise the pattern glare from the repeated stripes in text and put an end to the over-excitation of their visual cortex. So to everyone in that great body of anecdotal evidence, I have one thing to say: we will be here for you.

Bob Hext

Managing Director, Crossbow Education Ltd.

(Unashamed purveyors of Visual Stress Solutions.)

 

Footnote: Crossbow, Cerium, and I.O.O., who are the leading UK manufacturers of overlays systems, work closely with the scientific establishment to ensure that their products meet the criteria established by the research that detractors say doesn’t exist, but which can be easily found, for example, at www.essex.ac.uk/psychology/overlays/ , or read about in Arnold Wilkins’s excellent book “Reading Through Colour”. We don’t get involved with coloured lenses: we leave that to the optometrists, whose patients will have their own set of stories of life-changing freedom from Visual Stress. The instrument they use to prescribe the correct lens tint is called the Intuitive Colorimiter. It was developed at Cambridge University and funded by the Medical Research Council. Unscientific? Really?

 

Spotting the Elephant: A Tale of Two Costs

elephant in the roomThis is about taking visual stress seriously, and I’m thinking about it at the moment because this Thursday the county of Norfolk are doing just that.  Norfolk Sensory Support are holding a conference on Visual Stress, where leading  Specialist Professor Bruce Evans will be speaking, and one of our visual stress assessment packs will be given to each of the 150 schools attending.

What follows is some maths which includes estimates, approximations, extrapolations and I’m sure lots of other ations which may not be scientifically accurate but which point to  a reality which needs to be addressed. If you need to accurate measurements for the elephant in the room before acknowledging that it’s there, stop reading now; if you are happy to recognise the shape behind some rather blurred figures, carry on reading – and, if you can, pass it on.

Cost 1: not assessing for and supporting Visual Stress in school

The UK Prison population was 86,286 in Nov 2012. 50% of prisoners have a reading age of 11yrs or (much) less. There is a strong connection between illiteracy and offending. Surveys show that about 25% are dyslexic, so about 8,600  (10% – double the national statistic) probably suffer from severe Visual Stress. This is probably a conservative estimate – the figure of 8,600 is based on doubling the percentage of the population who suffer from visual stress severe enough to seriously impede reading. I have doubled it because the percentage of offenders who are dyslexic is at least double the national average.

The cost p/a of keeping one prisoner approx £45,000 (The Guardian Nov 4 2010). Therefore the annual cost of keeping 8600 visual stress sufferers in the prison population = £387,000,000 (Yes this is an oversimplification, and a number of those people would still be there if they didn’t fail at school because of illiteracy caused by visual stress; but spot the elephant nonetheless.

Cost 2: Assessing and supporting Visual Stress in every UK primary school

The cost of assessing and providing reading rulers/overlays/tinted ex books for one primary school child over one year is approx £30.00. This is based on the material cost of the products that one could reasonably expect one child to go through in a year, plus apportioning the single outlay of £50.00 for the assessment pack.  Therefore the annual cost of assessing and supporting V.S in 20,000 Primary Schools = £7,500,000.

Following this through, the possible potential saving to the taxpayer of coordinated nationwide Visual Stress intervention could be as much as £379,500,000.

Norfolk’s contribution?
150 schools is about 0.0075% of all the primary schools in the UK.
So 0.0075 % of  £387,000,000 is £2,902,500!
And of course all this is just money. You can’t measure the impact on individual lives with figures like this.

I know it’s not that simple. Not everyone with undiagnosed VS turns to crime, and people don’t just turn to crime because of illiteracy.  These figures are just an attempt to indicate something of the scale of the issue: it’s a sketch of an elephant; not a photograph. But the difference this conference will make to a lot of children’s lives is huge.

Can the Hand say to the Eye: “I have no need of thee?”

Edward Jenner

Edward Jenner (Photo credit: Wikipedia) would have had the same problems…

In the original quote, (from 1 Corinthians 12: 21, in the New Testament of the Bible) the eye and the hand were the other way round, but never mind…

While I was researching an article I wrote for Special Magazine in March, I came across the following…

‘A policy statement issued by the Committee on Children with Disabilities, American Academy of Paediatrics, American Academy of Ophthalmology, and American Association for Paediatric Ophthalmology and Strabismus stats that:

“Visual problems are rarely responsible for learning difficulties. No scientific evidence exists for the efficacy of eye exercises, vision therapy, or the use of special tinted lenses in the remediation of these complex neurological conditions.” ‘

Having got over my sense of frustration at this attitude, I had to ask myself the questions: “Just what, or whose, agenda are these people on?” and “Exactly where have they been looking for evidence?”, and even “Have they seen just how much of the brain is dedicated  to visual processing?” . I’ve been meaning to post on the subject ever since.

Unless this committee’s view of learning is limited to specific cognitive processes that take place entirely outside of the visual processing centres (and of course they understand  the brain in its entirety, unlike the rest of  the human race to whom it is currently given, I believe, to understand less than 10%…), this seems like saying “If a car doesn’t work properly it’s never got anything to do with the transmission”.

What’s worrying is that committees such as this one make pronouncements that influence policy, and that simple, cost-effective interventions that will both change lives and save large amounts of money remain sidelined instead of becoming enshrined in mainstream thinking. Nobody would deny the need for evidence-based research to underpin policy, but even if the sheer weight of anecdotal evidence of many thousands of people for whom the “words stopped moving” as soon as they read through colour is insufficient, is the scientific rigour and the peer-reviewed research of the Dept of Vision Science at Essex University not enough?

I suppose it’s always going to be that way: Science waits in the car with the engine running, while the establishment is still asleep in bed. Edward Jenner would have had the same problems introducing his discovery of the smallpox vaccine, and the science of immunology…  But if anybody has any means of contacting the above committee, would they mind sending them a copy of this link to Arnold Wilkins’s web pages, “Colour in the Treatment of Visual Stress”  http://www.essex.ac.uk/psychology/overlays/   and ask them to PLEASE WAKE UP?

Bob Hext   June 2013.

Reading comfort, lighting levels, and what you can do.

The "beat effect" problem created wh...

80% of classrooms still use old fashioned, flickering flourescent tubes.

Classroom Lighting is often too bright
Lighting in classrooms and offices is often very bright. This is partly because the room lights are left on unnecessarily, and partly because window blinds are often not used. In a recent survey more than 35% of classrooms had lighting levels that exceeded the level at which reading starts to become uncomfortable (1000Lux). It is good practice to ensure that ceiling lights are turned off when not needed and to use the window blinds to prevent direct sunlight entering the classroom.

How you can check using a camera
To determine whether the lighting levels are appropriate, you can take a single lens reflex camera and direct it at a page of text on the desk. The lighting is at recommended levels when the exposure is appropriate for a film speed of 100 ASA, an aperture of 5.6 and a shutter speed of 1/25th. More than this and the lighting levels are unnecessarily bright.

Unhealthy Lighting
More than 80% of classrooms still have the old fashioned form of fluorescent lighting, in which the lamps flicker 100 times per second. This lighting is unhealthy: it can cause headaches and eyestrain and the flicker interferes with visual tasks.

Eliminate the Flicker
Next time the lighting in your school or office is changed make sure that the new form of high frequency electronic circuitry is used to control the lamps. This eliminates the 100 per second flicker and although the installation costs are higher, the lower running costs offset the additional installation costs in about two years. High frequency electronic circuitry can readily be obtained from conventional suppliers. Some circuitry has the additional advantage that it can enable the lighting to be dimmed.

These notes are taken from the page on lighting in Crossbow Education’s Visual Stress Assessment Pack, which contains lots of background information as well as how to conduct a test for choosing the correct coloured overlay.

An afterthought
I remember an afternoon when I was still teaching: it was a difficult, noisy class of 13-14 year olds. Someone asked if I could switch off the lights and pull down the blinds. I resisted, because I was suspicious of the motives of the person who made the request. However I acquiesced eventually. The tension leaving the room was like air escaping from a  balloon. A lot of children in that class had difficulties with reading and writing, and they were the ones, usually, who were the source of the disruptive behaviour that often occurred. If I had known then what I know now I would have switched those lights of a lot earlier, and a lot more often!

Bob Hext