Does Photoreading Work?

Building on the previous article on ‘Speed reading techniques’, here we will explore ‘PhotoReading’ and the claims surrounding this approach to reading. The overall objective of PhotoReading is arguably similar to that of speed-reading: to enable a method of processing text more quickly without a loss of comprehension. That said there are clear differences between the two. 

Speed-reading employs a variety of techniques (which, notably, vary between different books and courses) such as ‘skimming’, i.e. visually searching sentences on pages for clues of the meaning, or skipping over sections of text which are less relevant or important, and ‘meta guiding’: visually guiding the eye with a finger or pointer to encourage the eye to move more quickly across the page. However, as will be elucidated, while PhotoReading does at one stage make use of one element of these speed-reading techniques, it differs markedly in terms of an overall approach. 

Photoreading's main claims: 

Starting from the principle that reading in a linear word-to-word way is inefficient, the techniques of PhotoReading are presented as a better way to extract information. PhotoReading uses a “toolbox” of techniques which are a unique way to process and understand large volumes of information quickly and efficiently. Described as an “integrated system of flexible reading strategies” the approach is said to enable the reader to read more quickly, improve the recollection of text, more efficiently extract key ideas and to avoid devoting time to the reading of books that are not worthwhile. The approach is described as comprising a set of techniques which anyone can learn that enable that person to use their whole mind for reading, thus accessing untapped potential by relying on an unconscious component of the mind. 

The techniques:

Firstly the process involves entering a relaxed state called Alpha State, at which point the reader, ‘stating the purpose’ for reading, consciously makes a decision regarding what knowledge they wish to gain from the text. Next the reader proceeds to preview the text, reading important parts such as the index, table of contents, key words and phrases and often whole sections of the text (using traditional reading methods). During the next step the reader is asked to enter a Theta State that is, a state of profound relaxation, which enables them to open the right brain allowing access to unconscious memory. After this they look at each page briefly for one or two seconds with a “soft” or diverted gaze (analogous to the kind used when looking at a Magic Eye picture where the eye must be focused beyond the actual picture). Following this phase is an “incubation” period during which the reader continues daily activities for anything between 20 minutes to 24 hours. After this period, the information can be “activated” and consciously used by the reader. The final stage is for the reader to “rapid read” the text, a process much like speed reading where the reader scans the text, skipping those areas which are familiar and slowing down for those less familiar, desired sections.

Does it really work?

In order to evaluate PhotoReading as a method, it is necessary to consider where the approach came from. The PhotoReading system should be understood as a commercial product developed and promoted by Paul Scheele, the co-founder of the organisation Learning Strategies Corporation who sell PhotoReading products. The organisation promotes the programme under the catch phrase “PhotoRead at 25,000 words a minute” alongside claims that the course not only enables students (among other things) to read more easily and with better understanding, but also to improve memory, sharpen concentration, improve productivity, invent new perspectives and approaches in life, enhance intuition and attain new levels of personal performance.

Just as with speed-reading, there are many questionable claims surrounding PhotoReading and the techniques promoted. Indeed, significant doubts exist regarding the ability of the brain to take on the quantities of data claimed. Moreover, the entire process and purported outcomes contradict the majority of accepted theories of reading comprehension (Kintsch, 1998), avoiding as it does the active and conscious cognitive processing of information.

Dr. Daniel McNamara’s report, entitled ‘Prelimanary Analysis of Photoreading’ (2000), provides a comprehensive overview of the PhotoReading techniques in which he asserts: 

These results clearly indicate that there is no benefit to using the PhotoReading technique. The extremely rapid reading rates claimed by PhotoReaders were not observed; indeed the reading rates were generally comparable to those for normal reading. Moreover, the PhotoReading expert showed an increase in reading time with the PhotoReading technique in comparison to normal reading. This increase in reading time was accompanied by a decrease in text comprehension. These results were found for two standardized tests of text comprehension and for three matched sets of expository texts.

In conclusion then, unfortunately, the claims made regarding PhotoReading appear not to be well supported and are in fact counterintuitive to our understanding of the ways in which we read and process information. To be sure, it is always important to be cautious about seemingly too good to be true claims, particularly those made by individuals and companies with a vested interest in selling their products, particularly when they are supported by little or no scientific evidence.