Scotopic Sensitivity (Meares-Irlen Syndrome): Proof English Teachers Suck

I stumbled across a medical journal article completely by chance not that long ago, and it focused on the disorder called Scotopic Sensitivity (aka, Meares-Irlen Syndrome). In a nutshell, this is an eye disorder that causes text seemingly to vibrate when there is high contrast between the ink and the paper — such as black text on bright white paper. 1 I have the disorder.  Unfortunately, I had no idea.

Read what?

I have to read what?

From my earliest memory of reading books, I can recall that it hurts. Real, physical pain. The effect of the vibrating letters is one of a headache. It’s much like the “brain freeze” that one gets when drinking too quickly a beverage that is too cold, except that this pain happens continually while I’m reading, and it stops almost instantly when I look away. It only happens with textbooks and other print on similarly bright–white paper. The fluorescent lighting found in most classrooms exacerbates the effect.

Until recently, I didn’t know that this had a name. I didn’t know that others experience it. In fact, I didn’t exactly know that *I* experience it. When one has a certain physical sensation his entire life, he often doesn’t perceive it is a special feeling that is totally distinct from just “being”. Yes, it comes and goes with the reading — but it isn’t necessarily clear that reading should not feel that way. Like a brain freeze. You assume that’s just the way cold drinks feel sometimes.

As with any hardship in life, people adapt. Because I found it to be so unpleasant, I adapted simply by reading as little as possible. My adaptation has led me to an epiphany about my educational experiences:

You don’t have to read the material to do well in literature courses, and most teachers are horrible.

The teachers want you to distill the text into a set of themes/issues that are common to our lives. The literature means something beyond the obvious. “Good writing” tells a story on the literal level and on the metaphorical level. Talented teachers can lead a discussion that incorporates both. Untalented teachers too quickly stray from the text and facilitate group discussions that are only about the theme subjects, and students don’t need to know the text to give their opinion on issues like good versus evil, forms of love, the essence of bravery, etc. In one of these poorly run discussions, a student only needs to be reasonably articulate. No answer is the “right” answer because students are not required to give opinions that are directly supported by specific character dialogue or plot points. It’s a circus of dull opinions. The teacher mistakenly believes that the students are “engaged with the material” as they argue the inevitability of fate (or some other generic theory given to them). Best of all, the untalented teacher will outline the entire plot of the text as he forms ever more obvious, leading questions such as “when John stabs his mother and says, ‘oh shit’ — is he thinking about literal shit related to his work at the shit factory, or is it metaphorical shit because the act is so distressing?” Got it. John works at the shit factory and stabs his mother to death in Chapter 2.

The reading list for my “honors” English course in college had 30+ books on it — everything from Freud’s On Dreams to Homer’s The Odyssey. They were printed using text that vibrated. I read none of them. I listened intently to the class discussions and participated in class whenever possible. Before making a bold statement in a paper, I would ask a friend if there were obvious contradictions to it in the story that “I had missed somehow”. I got an ‘A’ on every paper and an ‘A+’ for the course.

Adaptation is everything. Well, that and having horrible teachers.

UPDATE 2014/01/10: A good friend sent me an email asking me how it is that I am able to make a living in which I’m constantly having to read text. It’s simple, really. I adjust my computer monitors to very low contrast, and the issue goes away. I often receive comments from people seeing my computer screen for the first time saying things such as, “how can you read that — it’s so dark?”  That’s how.


  1. If you’re curious about the experience of Scotopic Sensitivity, check out this online demonstration showing how text on white paper appears to me.

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