Dyslexia, Cognitive Dissonance and Visual Stress.

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Dyslexia By: Tutor no longer registered
Subject: Dyslexia
Last updated: 23/06/2016
Tags: cognitive dissonance, dyslexia, letter reversals, spelling errors, visual stress

What is visual stress?

Dyslexic people often complain that the words are moving about on the page. This can make it difficult for them to focus. Some people get around this problem by hyper-focusing but this means that they quickly become tired and can develop migraine like headaches, feelings of nausea and sore or watery eyes. We call these symptoms visual stress.

Seeing things from the dyslexic person's point of view.

Most, if not all dyslexics know that the letters are not really moving about on the page but that does not stop it from happening. It's a bit like if someone told you that the world wasn't spinning when you got off a roundabout. You would know you are experiencing an optical illusion but that knowledge wouldn't make the world stop spinning and it wouldn't stop you from feeling sick.

Imagine what it would be like if someone expected you to read and understand what you were reading while you were still dizzy. This is what life is like for a dyslexic person who is experiencing visual stress. It is little wonder therefore that many of them actively avoid learning.

Why do people experience optical illusions?

When it comes to roundabouts we know they make you feel dizzy because you have balance sensors in your inner ears. These are small semi-circular tubes filled with liquid. If you lean a certain way the liquid moves. This movement stimulates hair follicles to send nerve messages to your brain telling you which way up you are.

When you spin around on a roundabout the liquid in your inner ears also moves about. After you get off the roundabout the liquid takes a minute or so to become still again. During this time your brain thinks that you are still moving. Even if you tell yourself that you are not moving your brain won't listen and you have no choice but to experience the world from your brains point of view.

Not all optical illusions are caused by over stimulation of the balance mechanisms in the ears. Some are caused when other senses become confused by over stimulation or when two senses are sending conflicting information to the brain. Anyone interested in exploring this further can find numerous examples through any number of search engines such as google. Most people will be familiar with some very common ones such as where two objects the same size look different because of what is in the background. Optical illusions can also be caused by cognitive dissonance.

What is cognitive dissonance?

Can you name the ink colours below correctly? Can you read the words correctly?

Green BlueYellow Pink OrangeBlackWhiteRedBrownRedOrange Blue

Some people struggle with this task because one part of the brain wants to read the words and another part wants to name the colours. We refer to these types of confusions as cognitive dissonance. This term was first used by Leon Festinger in 1956 and it refers to the discomfort caused by holding conflicting cognitions (e.g. beliefs, values, and/or emotional reactions) simultaneously.

Many dyslexic individuals experience cognitive dissonance when trying to read. This can be caused by a number of factors. For example, some students experience difficulty when trying to decode or spell non-phonetic words. One part of their brain is telling them what the word looks like but another part is telling them how to spell it according to the rules of phonics. This explains why some dyslexic learners have inconsistent spelling.

Letter reversals may also be caused by cognitive dissonance. Perhaps the most common one of these is mixing up b's and d's. This happens because students are often percieving letters as shapes rather than symbols. This may not seem important but the often unconscious rules we learn about shapes are very different to the ones that we learn about symbols.

Shapes usually retain their identity even when viewed from a different orientation

If, for example, we imagine a triangle pointing to the left and then turn it around so that it points to the right we still think it is a triangle. We would be very confused if someone told up that the second triangle was really a square.

Symbols can and often do change their identity when viewed from a different orientation

Unlike the triangles in the example above a turn left road sign becomes a turn right road sign if we flip it over. It is still the same shape but because it is a symbol it's meaning changes if it is placed in a different orientation. Anyone applying the rules of shapes to road signs would probably crash their car.

Letters are symbols and not shapes

If someone thinks that letters are shapes they will think that b and d are the same. Only by recognising that letters are symbols will they be able to understand that b and d are different.

Cognitive dissonance and visual stress

For many dyslexic individuals the cognitive dissonance they experience when faced with words that are not spelt phonetically or letters that are mirror images of each other causes them to disorientate and this causes the words to appear to move about on the page or it can cause them to lose their concentration and zone out. Left uncorrected, this then causes more confusion as the person struggles to read what now appears to be moving text or to remember what they have just read.

The good news is that by identifying what triggers disorientations and/or visual stress in each individual, we can help them to overcome their misunderstandings. This not only improves spelling and letter recognition but can also help to address many of the other symptoms of dyslexia. Additionally, as the person is no longer confused they no longer experience visual stress which makes learning easier.

For anyone wishing to learn how to recognise when a disorientation has occurred in a dyslexic learner I would recommend reading 'The Gift of Dyslexia' by Ronald Davis.

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