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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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!