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50 Shades of Grey Matter: Recent Breakthrough Discoveries About How Color Affects Brain Activity

When it comes to the brain, it’s not just about grey matter. In fact, the latest research suggests that color can have a really big impact on how the brain functions. Color influences brain activity patterns in areas of the brain that support perception, thought, language, and emotions. That means, that as our brain figures out what color we’re looking at, color, in turn is changing the way our brain is working. In particular, looking through a colored lens can actually change the way different parts of the brain communicate with each other. And even more importantly, the effect of color on the brain isn’t uniform. Instead researchers have found that individual brains are uniquely tuned to color, meaning that brains can be very different from one another in terms of their color sensitivity. In a study of 30 people at Cornell University, researchers found that there wasn’t a single color that influenced brain activity in specific ways for all people. Instead, some brains were tuned more toward one wavelength of color to impact brain activity, and other brains were tuned towards other wavelengths. Brains are uniquely tuned to different colors. This answers a lot of the questions about why the Irlen Method requires unique colors for each individual – because brain responses to colors are unique!

In a second study, where researchers showed participants two different colors on a screen and asked them which color appeared first, the color that the individual’s brain was tuned to always appeared first for that individual, even though in reality, both colors were presented on screen at the same time. So, in other words, the color that the individual’s brain was tuned to actually had an advantage in time.

Current understanding of how Irlen Spectral Filters work, is by altering the speed of the information reaching the brain. Let’s say, for example, you have one individual where the brain is tuned toward blue, so blue reaches the brain really quickly, this will disregulate the information going to the brain and how parts of the image are put together because one wavelength is sped up. Irlen Spectral Filters realign these differences in brain processing speed across the spectrum.

To put this theory to the test, researchers put individuals with severe symptoms of Irlen Syndrome into the functional MRI scanner at Cornell University to map the visual system. Subjects were reading words in the center of a screen while a variety of visual distractions were displayed in the background and periphery of the screen. What they found is that when these individuals were asked to read while wearing a blank lens, there was significant over-activity in the brain. For all subjects, this overactivity was prominent in the visual centers of the brain (visual cortex), but in some subjects, the overactivity extended to other areas of the brain as well, with some having overactivity across the entire brain. When the blank lens was replaced with the individual’s specific Irlen Spectral Filter color, the over-activity disappeared and normal brain activity returned.

This ongoing research at Cornell University is not the first to show overactivity in the brain that resolves with the proper Irlen Spectral Filter color, but with continued data collection, it anticipates being the largest brain imaging study on the topic to date.