By Heather Williams
Inspired by his own challenges with dyslexia, Dr. Matthew Schneps is possibly reengineering the way we read. The speed at which we read is limited by how quickly we can absorb information. Unfortunately, it seems the priorities when designing letters and words were focused on reducing the amount of time it takes a scribe to write and the cost of the materials on which they were written. Schneps describes how letters were designed to be drawn quickly and compressed to fit as many on a page as possible to reduce the amount of parchment required. However, when letters are clustered very close to each other, a phenomenon called “crowding” occurs. Crowding describes the brain’s inability to distinguish the letters in the cluster, and research supports that crowding limits the speed of reading. Schneps uses the following cluster of letters as an example: Dwzrh k wbp. Notice the letter “k” is much easier to distinguish than the following crowded cluster: Dwzrhkwbp.
Now that we don’t have to wait for scribes to painstakingly write text, and digital formats remove the cost of paper, scientists are rethinking how we can read to process more information efficiently and effectively. Dr. Matthew Schneps, a director at the Laboratory for Visual Learning, is collaborating with scientists to re-invent reading to be more efficient with limitations that are inherent only within the brain and not by our eyes’ inability to relay information quickly enough to our brains for processing.
Schneps began this pursuit of research after struggling with dyslexia. He discovered that it was easier to read on the small screen of his smartphone and cites evidence to support this impact of shortened line reading. Even before smartphones were invented, researchers had started to notice that shortening the span of text facilitated reading by those with similar struggles. He theorizes that shortened line reading helps to guide the reader’s attention forward in the text. Other researchers have demonstrated that guiding the reader’s attention allows the person to read more quickly. For example, Beeline Reader is an application that creates a color gradient in each line of text to guide the reader forward. Rapid serial visual presentation (RSVP) is another method of flashing words one at a time in a single place on the computer screen which eliminates the requirement to visually move along a line of text.
Schneps and his colleagues are attempting to increase reading efficiency by activating parallel channels of processing through both vision and hearing. People can process language as speech much more quickly than they can read; however, when the speed of speech reaches a threshold, the brain is seemingly overwhelmed and comprehension plummets. The Laboratory for Visual Learning is using a “rapid accelerating program” (RAP) or RSVP to quickly show people visual presentations of text; meanwhile, they’re utilizing the person’s auditory network by rendering the same text as audio. This way, the speed of processing is limited by neither the visual nor auditory pathway, and theoretically a person will be able to read more quickly than they would if they were relying solely on either their visual pathway or auditory network.