In this episode, Ari talks with Helen Irlen, founder of The Irlen Method. Helen maintains that 25% of the population is unnecessarily struggling with reading and learning related issues that stem from sensitivity to light and glare. Helen says that light coming from modern technologies such as white boards, fluorescent lights and computer screens can cause distress to many people. Through careful assessment, Helen can prescribe a pair of glasses that filter out particular spectrum of light that is at the root cause of brain fog, headaches, and learning problems.
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Ari: Now I’m speaking with Helen Irlen who is the founder of The Irlen Institute. Helen, thank you for talking to me.
Helen: It’s wonderful to be talking with you, Ari!
Ari: We are going to be talking about light and brightness and colours and I’m very, very excited. What is the science of colour, basically? Why should we care about colour?
Helen: Well, we might as well care about colour. I have to kind of say we’re really working with colour as it applies to wavelengths of lights. All lights is composed of different colours of the rainbow so if you put white light through a prism, it breaks up until all the colours are travelling at different speeds. Your brain – not your eyes – is what has to process visual information. If some of those wavelengths of light or colours are coming in in the wrong speed, it has a major effect on many aspects of what you can do – your health, your wellbeing, your sensitivity to light, your performance achievement. We can talk about some of these things in more detail.
Ari: Absolutely! That’s what I want to do. First of all, you created this method for sort of testing the way that different people respond to different spectrums of light, right? Maybe it’s a silly question, but why is there a difference? Why do two different people respond to different light spectrums so differently?
Helen: That’s an excellent question. I’m not sure I really have a neuro-scientific answer but I can tell you in terms of generally, what we have found are two reasons. One is you get to inherit it. You can inherit it from either one of your parents, if you’re lucky from both parents and the problem is really severe. Or you can acquire the problems through head injuries, concussions, TBI, and certain medical conditions like chronic fatigue syndrome and other auto-immune conditions. You end up being much more light sensitive.
Ari: Okay. Light sensitivity can come in several forms too, as I know it. I know certain colours and certain spectrums and certain brightness and things like that. My wife used to be a migraine sufferer and bright lights were just the worse thing for her when she was having a headache, whereas I’ve always found that certain hues maybe made me kind of wince a little bit more or whatever it might be.
How does somebody go about figuring this out? How does the Irlen Method work?
Helen: You brought up an interesting point. Everyone responds differently to light and they’re bothered by different colours or light spectrum. The art of this is in why it works so well is that we are able to figure out which of those specific colours or spectrums of light your brain and therefore your body is not responding to well and then we go in and we filter just the amount we need to so it’s absolutely customized for each individual’s brain to calm the brain down, calm the neurological system down and that leads obviously, to less stress and improvements in life.
Ari: Sure! I use a pair of blue blocking sunglasses at night often if the TV is going to be on or if I’m using the computer late at night and I find that really, really affects my ability to get better sleep. For the people who don’t know, blue light will affect your ability to produce melatonin. But you’re talking about way more detail than that, of course.
For instance, I’ve seen several pairs of your glasses and they’re all different colours. Basically, how does a purple lens going to affect the light that’s coming in to me and affect me overall as opposed to someone who has a red-ish lens or whatever that is? It’s fascinating to me how you’re able to figure out with that level of nuance.
Helen: That’s the art; it took me quite a while to figure out how one’s able to do that. But because everybody’s brain is different, everyone reacts differently to light and it affects them differently. I’m certain of the wavelengths of light are bothersome for some people and not bothersome for others. The art of this is the fact that we can figure it out and correct it so that the timing of all the wavelengths of light, they’re coming in at the correct times, the brain is not overstressing trying to function and perceive things and there’s not energy and effort in going into perceiving it. People may experience, as a result, headache, nausea, dizziness, eyestrain, fatigue, difficulties reading, copying, attention and concentration. The condition can get misdiagnosed as ADD or ADHD so about a third of those who are being diagnosed and being put on medication and the medication is either not working or creating more problems probably need Irlen. This is actually what’s going on. About half of those who are getting misdiagnosis is dyslexic. Actually, they’re saying distortions on the pages and thinks it’s creating strain and fatigue. They don’t have to live like that and just say “Oh well, I guess I’m dyslexic and I have to struggle or I can’t do well or I’m not as bright as someone else or why are other people able to do it and I’m not?” They may have Irlen, as well. It’s an underlying condition that’s not being talked about or recognized.
Ari: Okay. For people who will see pictures and stuff in the blog, the result is they’re going to get a pair of glasses, basically that have a lens that is tinted perfectly for what your needs are. Let’s talk about what an Irlen session looks like. It’s about six hours, right?
Helen: It’s a long session but we break it up into two sessions. First of all, we’re not going to put anyone in glasses unless this is going to make a moderate to significant difference for them. We have a number of pre-steps. One is we have some pre-tests that are available. There are a number of them available online. One, if you’re having academic difficulties or reading difficulties and that’s a self-test for Irlen syndrome; there’s another one available if you’re dealing with headaches and migraines and want to know if your triggers are those that will respond then to the method of wearing coloured lenses.
A lot of people go online; they take the self tests, they either relate to it totally or they go “nope, not at all; this is not it for me at all”. Even if they relate to it, then they come in and we do what’s called a screening where we have certain perceptual tests that will list the types of discomfort and distortions that the individual is experiencing but they’re not aware of.
Ari: It sounds unpleasant.
Helen: People go, “Whenever people ask me what reading is like when I get to that point where I want to stop reading.” If you ask someone what reading is like and they don’t like reading they will say, “boring.” But if you say, “Wait a minute. Stop and think about what reading is like when you get to that point where you want to stop reading.” You can get different responses. “I fall asleep but doesn’t everybody fall asleep?” “It’s uncomfortable; I rub my eyes.” You get different responses. How does the page look? It shouldn’t look any different and it shouldn’t feel any different than when you started even if you’re reading an hour or two hours or three hours later. If your norm is the fact that you’ve always experienced headaches at some point when you read so you stop reading before that happens or you bring many breaks into reading or you prefer to read in different light. You just think it’s normal and that’s what it’s like for everybody.
Anyway; we do screening to help that person and ask to identify all of the symptoms, all the discomfort that’s happening and all of the difficulties that they’re having. The art of this is not to get rid of some but to get rid of all of the symptoms. We work with coloured overlays which is just plastic sheets that we put down on the page to come up with the correct colour or colour combination that the individual then uses to make sure that they are getting moderate to considerable changes.
Then they come back for the second appointment where we actually come up with the filters – what we have to filter for that individual. Probably, all total it takes six hours. It’s about two hours or an hour and a half for the first session to two and a half hours for the second session. It is detailed and it has to be for it work.
Ari: Of course! It’s really fascinating. Can you end up with really anything on the spectrum? Could you have somebody who is a really, really red lens and somebody who is a violet lens? Is it the full spectrum or do you sort of see commonly?
Helen: It’s not even the full spectrum; it’s a tweak of the full spectrum so it may be a little bit of violet and little more green and a tinge of blue. It’s actually coming up and creating that combination; we’re working with, again, how much do we have to filter or if we have to filter or we do not have to filter. It’s not like sunglasses where we don’t make anything darker or dimmer because we’re not cutting across the whole spectrum band, and you don’t need to if you’re optimizing the brain’s ability to function and actually normalizing it by doing this. Also, colours look normal so somebody may be wearing a blue lens but white will still be white and all colours work normal. The world does not look blue for them.
Ari: No rose-coloured glasses for them then.
Helen: In that sense, no.
Ari: Okay. What is your colour? I’m curious.
Helen: I think the reason I discovered this is that I’m totally not on the continuum.
Helen: When I started doing the research way back in 1980 with adults who are at the university level but who were still struggling, I wanted to know the questions we’re not asking. What are we not identifying and therefore, why does an individual continue to struggle for a lifetime? That’s how this came up.
I think because when I started asking the right questions or learned how to ask my questions in the right way and I was getting recording, I can play off of myself and go, “No, it never happens to me. I read for six hours and I never look up from a book. No, I don’t think I’ve ever had a headache in my life. No, reading does not put me to sleep.”
I didn’t have any of the symptoms and I think that I wanted to make – without realizing it – just like me. In actuality, if I had any of the symptoms I may have dismissed them and said, “That’s my norm; that’s your norm. Just work harder; I achieved anyway.” I was able to achieve and perform so much easier and better and it took me less time to do it because I didn’t have any of the symptoms. It does run on my husband’s side of the family, I’ll tell you. He has an aunt and cousins who are wearing it, but I don’t have a colour that I get to wear. But I’m also the person who doesn’t wear sunglasses outside. I can sit in bright sun and read forever. Fluorescent lights don’t bother me at all; I can’t tell the difference if they’re on or off.
Ari: That’s very fortunate. I guess you’re a good model to work from.
Helen: I have to make sure of that, too. I took all my graduate students who were under me at that time and who what I would call proficient readers – they read for long periods very efficiently – and they were all just like me.
Ari: You mentioned your research. I’m curious what lead you there. I heard an interview that you gave and you said something that I really liked where you were talking about how blackboards used to actually be black and then they became green and now they’re white boards. When I wake up in the morning – I wake up pretty early because we have three little boys – I’m always up before the sun comes up and I almost never turn the lights on in the morning. I always kind of wait until the sun come up. I find – I don’t even respond to it, just kind of like a natural mechanism – I see well in the dark and I just sort of let natural sunlight come in rather than turning on artificial lighting. But it’s true that everything is brighter; there are lights everywhere. There are lights in screens and everywhere. Is that leading to a sort of desensitization for some people, do you think? What lead you on that path, on that research?
Helen: Let’s talk about the fact that not everybody has this condition.
Helen: Actually, the majority of the people do not. That’s what you’re fighting. You’re realizing that the majority of the population is like me. Actually, the best lighting for my population is what you call indirect natural lighting. Incandescent light was great, but that’s gone so we can’t talk about that anymore. I couldn't care if you put the reverse contrast with black boards or white boards; it doesn’t bother me. I don’t see glare. When people are saying to me, “That glare is bothersome” I go, “Where’s the glare?” or “That car is really bright” I go, “What car is bright?”
You have a population that’s the majority of that population that none of these environmental factors are triggers for them. They’re not bothering their health or their wellbeing; it’s not a trigger for them. They rule the world. They have made the world the least stressful for them. It happens to be the most stressful for the population that responds to my technology.
That’s what’s happening in the classroom. We went from the blackboards with white which is great; reverse contrast is very good, by the way. Green boards are great as long as you don’t use yellow chalk. White boards; sure, why not?
Think about the classroom – you have books that are high-gloss, black print on white paper. You have fluorescent lights that for the majority of the population none of these are a problem but each one triggers and makes it worse. The worst possible scenario is what we’ve don’t in terms of the classroom environment and the workplace and this assumption that brighter is better so they’ve made the fluorescent lighting a hundred and fifty per cent brighter since we’re at work. We keep getting brighter and brighter. You have high def television screens; they’re really bright. We have computers that are backlit by fluorescent light so you’re sitting there staring into fluorescent lights. The Kindle came out – the first Kindle.
Ari: The paperwhite.
Helen: No, the one where it was grey.
Ari: Oh yeah.
Helen: It was dim. I thought, ‘Wow! They’ve gotten it right! Finally!’ Everyone else came out with high contrast, increase the brightness and Kindle came out with then the paperwhite to go along with everybody else.
Your population just happens to be the worst for some people.
Ari: You mentioned reverse contrast. Is that what the white board with black pens? Would that be reverse contrast?
Helen: Black if you have black; you can do it on your computer screen, even. You can change the contrast so you have black background with white print; that’s so much better for my population than the black print on a white background.
Ari: It’s funny because I tend to read feeds and blog stuff on my phone at night and I use a feature that allows you to do that so I do that, the black background with the white thing. I find at night when I try to read white background with black text I see lines in the air; I’ll see black lines throughout the air. It’s interesting.
Helen: It’s triggering stuff for you.
Helen: What’s fun about this is you’re running around going, “I have to figure out how to modify my environment and what’s best for me.” Children can’t modify their own environment and a lot of people aren’t aware of how to modify your environment. If you just have the Irlen Colour and you’re wearing it as glasses or contact lenses you don’t have to modify your environment then. Nothing in your environment that was a stressor is a stressor anymore.
Ari: How young can you do this? They just have to be able to interact with the test person?
Helen: The testing can be done, depending on the severity of the symptoms. If you have young children – even three, four and five – who are already complaining of headaches or stomach aches then we can test them. That young is really unusual, they’re pretty severe.
Ari: Stomach ache?
Helen: Yeah. Stomach ache is another symptom. They physical symptoms are a huge array – eyes hurt, ache, burn, dry, sandy, scratchy, itchy, tired, sleepy, fidgety, antsy, highly distractible – there’s a huge range of symptoms. That’s why we have the self-test.
Ari: That’s all environment stuff. What about internal things? I actually have a slight astigmatism in one of my eyes and that’s something I know is pretty common for people. I had to have glasses for a year basically that were corrective and I never had glasses again. Does astigmatism affect – it’s got to effect how you perceive light?
Helen: Yes. The visual acuity is your baseline so we want people to be in glasses and fully corrected then we look at how the brain then processes visual information. The eyes, the camera it just corrects the light or the visual image to the correct part of the retinas so it can be sent to the brain to be processed. You have two aspects to the visual system: the eye, and that’s the first one on the basic and then we have to look at the brain and how the brain is processing the information. If you’re wearing glasses we just add the colour to your prescription.
Ari: Got you! You said most people don’t really have this problem. For somebody who doesn’t have that problem, is there not a way to use the glasses for even further performance enhancing? Help them focus?
Ari: No. Okay.
Helen: We’re very selective who we can help. Surprisingly we’re talking about twenty-six per cent of the population which is not a small percentage of the population.
Ari: No, not at all.
Helen: Think about it; in terms of workplace and school and when you’re looking at people who are struggling in school who may be identified with reading, learning or attention problems, reading difficulties and dyslexia is forty-six per cent. That’s almost half so that’s a huge significant population. For those, we do want to maximise their ability to perform and enhance their wellbeing. Your brain really controls how you think, how you feel, how you perform, your ability to function and your health and wellbeing. That’s all controlled by your brain. You want the best brain possible and this allows us to give the individual the best brain possible. It doesn’t help if you already have the best brain possible.
Ari: Is this something that is corrective? You’re giving your brain a little rest from all these harmful spectrum and stuff and then it can come back not needing the glasses anymore? Do you wear them all day long? How is it used as a tool?
Helen: If you realise that lighting is something that your brain is processing a hundred per cent of the time, unless you’re in a dark room with your eyes closed that’s when you’re at your maximum. If you’re in a dark room with your eyes closed, that comfort level is the comfort level that you should have a hundred per cent of the time. We find most people wear them all the time.
Ari: It’s not corrective then, either? You get better and then you don’t need them as much?
Helen: What happens is you may get, after a period where you take them off and you say, “its okay now. It’s not so bad.” But over time, unless you’ve changed your environment for some reason you now can totally control your environment, the stress from the environmental triggers are eventually going to come back and create a problem again.
Ari: Okay. Is that something that you can sort of extrapolate? If somebody knows what their colour is and what the sensitivities are, at least when they’re at home, is there a way to even mitigate some of that? Can they put coloured light bulbs in? It sounds a little too complicated I guess, but is that possible?
Helen: I wouldn’t even go that far but I think you have to realize that brightness then becomes an issue. You can look at brightness, glare becomes an issue so if you have large windows and there’s a lot of glare, you want to maybe put sheer curtains over them or something with shutters so you can control it. You may want to put something so you can control the brightness of the lighting. You may look at avoiding white paper, you may want to print things off your computer on to coloured paper if that works for you.
On our website, you can change the background colours so you can play with colours on our computer to see which one is better for you in terms of working with. It used to be everyone thought, “I’ll work on white paper” or they wanted the yellow pads and yellow can be as bright or brighter than white. That’s a problem with this; there are certain colours that are going to be worse than white; some colours are going to be as bad as white, some colours are going to be better than white but only one colour combination of colours is really going to give you that total relief, change and improvement.
Ari: Okay. You said you’re processing about a hundred per cent of the time when you’re in a dark room with your eyes closed so if you are in a dark room with your eyes closed – you’re sleeping, per se – will this help set you up for better sleep and help with your circadian rhythm?
Helen: Yes. Think about that; if you’re not stressing all day long, think about how much more relaxed you are at night.
We’ve been working with military who have been over in Iraq and Afghanistan and experienced traumatic head injuries from blasts and multiple blasts. As a result, they have acquired this condition to a very, very severe extent. Sleep, anxiety, depression is all a component for them as well as all the other issues that we’re dealing with. They live with headaches everyday that just vary in intensity, triggering migraines two times a day to two times a week. We were able to totally get rid of the headaches and the migraines, absolutely reduce their anxiety and improve their performance and of course, sleep improves.
Ari: Right. That totally makes sense. It’s really interesting about the stress aspect of it because some people aren’t aware of things that stress them and there are a number of environmental factors beyond lighting. Of course it can affect your stress but that’s obviously a big one. In a way, it’s a thing that you can’t see because there’s nothing coming at you that you’re physically aware of. That really makes sense.
This may be out of your realm here, but the photo receptors that we have on our skin, they can affect circadian rhythms. Does that have any play to this at all?
Helen: Your photo receptors also are light sensitive so they’re also gathering light. In terms of what we’re doing it doesn’t seem to make a difference.
Ari: Right. That totally makes sense, too.
The last question I like to ask people on this podcast – I’m very interested to hear your responses – what are the top three tips for being more effective? From anything that you’ve ever learned in your graduate work or in your research or the Irlen Method; what are those three things that will make someone more effective?
Helen: I think one is to be aware of your body.
Ari: I love that one.
Helen: And not discard symptoms. I had one child who came in and she said, “I have headaches all the time.” I said, “Really? Do you have any idea why you have headaches?” She said, “Yes, my mom would braid my hair very tight when I was young.”
You make incorrect associations or you’re compensating and you have no idea what it’s like for anyone else. Pay attention to your body. Don’t discard what your body is trying to tell you. Educate yourself. Read; there’s a lot of information out there that’s on the internet. I have two books out there, one called Change Your Perception, Change Your Brain and look at self tests.
Make environmental modifications. You don’t have to sit there and struggle and be like everyone else. If you are bothered by light and you’re in a restaurant and the only seat available when you walk in is facing the window with the brightness coming at you and the glare, I always tell people be the advocate because nobody else cares. Say to someone, “Would you mind changing seats with me?” Because I’m sure nobody would mind. I say the same thing to people who have auditory sensitivities and smell sensitivities because you’re going to have a variety of other sensitivity.
Take control of your environment. If you have auditory sensitivities and it’s very hard for you in groups to follow what people are saying, say to somebody, “I’m really interested in talking with you. Let’s go over together. Let’s go in a quiet room where we can talk.” They’re not going to think you’re strange; they’re going to think that you really are interested in what they have to say.
Be an advocate and take control of your environment and don’t be ashamed to do that. Be proactive.
Ari: Was that two or three?
Helen: That’s two.
Ari: You need one more.
Helen: I thought it was long so I decided to make it short. Let’s see; let’s do one more. Well, I thought I did three because I said take control of your environment, be a good advocate but also to get educated. Getting educated is the third one. Ask questions, look things up. Don’t just assume that what you have to deal with you have to deal with the rest of your life.
Ari: Those are wonderful ones. It’s interesting to me. Self-awareness comes up a lot in one way or another and being aware of the environment. I think those are really great that gets reinforced in various different ways.
Where can people go to find out more about Irlen Method or Irlen Syndrome or to do the self-test? Where’s the best place to do that?
Helen: The website is www.irlen.com (I-R-L-E-N) so you can just look IRLEN up. We’re all over the website, but it’s Irlen, I-R-L-E-N (irlen.com). There’s information like books that are on Amazon.com. There’s a lot of information on the web that you can read.
To get the self-test, to find out where the closest clinics and diagnosticians are, get on to the web.
Ari: Yeah. Absolutely! We’re going to link to the website, your books and to the self-test. Helen, thank you so much for talking to me. That was really, really eye-opening, no pun intended. I appreciate it!
Helen: Thanks, Ari! It’s been a pleasure!