New Study to Eye Reading Discomfort

CMC Professor of Psychology Chris Chase is looking toward a new grant to help explain why some people find reading a visually uncomfortable task that may touch-off a list of symptoms that include headaches and migraines, visual distortion, repeated reading of text, and sensitivity to light.

"There's very little research of this kind in this country," says Chase, who proposed the study after his sabbatical last year at the University of Oxford, "and it was my Oxford colleagues who convinced me that I wouldn't have a problem finding subjects for my research."

A pilot study of 150 CMC students has already provided Chase the confirmation he was looking for: about 20 percent of the respondents indicated problems associated with reading. Among the affected sampling, 40 percent reported they "often" encountered eye strain, suffered headaches (46 percent), re-read text (36 percent), experienced sensitivity to lighting conditions (37 percent), and had slowed reading (21 percent) while reading text.

As a professor, Chase says he was concerned with the findings. "What this tells me is that one of every five students is struggling with readingand it's happening among some of our brightest," he says. Furthermore, it may indicate that if students aren't dealing with their symptoms, they may not be doing the reading that is required of them in class.

Chase's study, funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), under the Academic Research Enhancement Award (AREA) program, will probe the prevalence of visual discomfort, allow for more descriptive data, and look toward identifying the causality of such problems. Initial thoughts, he says, are that discomfort may be linked to ocular-motor problems (those muscles that help the eye focus) that aren't routinely screened for in eye exams, and/or responses in the central nervous system, which may be sensitive to physical characteristics of font and printtriggering distortion or movement.

"There are parts of the visual system that are sensitive to patterns not occurring in nature, but that our culture and people have created over time," Chase says. For those sufferers, text may often have the appearance of moving on the page.

If that's the case, studies may lead to solutions toward customizing text so that it appears static, he says.

Chase is working with the Southern California College of Optometry in Fullerton to conduct a clinical study, which will involve a full optometric charting of participating students. Studies and screenings will take part here at CMC, and on the SCCO campus, and will broaden in spring as students of all comfort/discomfort levels are recruited, Chase says.

"You can imagine that if this is occurring among our brightest students who read for a living,'" he says, "it's probably prevalent across the population."