Articles on PhotoReading

Mind over miles of matter

by Lisa Johnson
appearing in The Bulletin,
the newsweekly of the capital of Europe

When accelerated learning specialist Patricia Danielson came to Europe from New England as a tourist, she fancied a tour of French chateaux and vineyards. With basic knowledge of French and virtually none whatsoever of the subject, she strode into a bookshop, picked up 20 books and "PhotoRead" them at a rate of a page a second (25,000 words a minute). When it came to the tour, so informed was she that she was often able to finish the tour guide's sentences.

Anyone suffering from what the Americans call "document shock"—bewilderment and stress at the prospect of piles of unread files, papers, magazines and books, at work and at home—will probably be green with envy at the idea of someone reading and assimilating information so efficiently. Yet Danielson is no wonder woman, merely the co-developer of the PhotoReading course, based on a system created in the mid-Eighties by Paul Scheele of Learning Strategies Corporation, Minnesota.

The PhotoReading Whole Mind System is based on the view that traditional reading techniques exploit only a small percentage—around 10, according to Einstein—of the brain's capacity. At school, we are taught to read in a line from left to right, one word after the other. Speed reading can take your rate up to 3,000 to 8,000 words a minute, but lodges information in the short-term memory only, and often entails fatigue and stress.

These reading methods make use of only the left side of the brain, the conscious, logical side, which can only process around seven pieces of information at a time. Meanwhile, the right side of the brain—the seat of imagination, intuition and artistic activity—is redundant.

PhotoReading increases the potential both of the eye—which needs but a fraction of a second to register everything around it—and of the mind, placing information directly in the unconscious and using the conscious mind to "activate" it. The goal is not so much to read more quickly, as more intelligently; as well as teaching you how to PhotoRead, the course will show you how to "preview", "super read" and "dip" into a text, and how to read syntopically, or dipping into a number of books at once, giving you a broader view of a subject. PhotoReading is aimed at students and professionals with information overload—so no, you won't be able to read War and Peace in a few minutes flat.

One of Scheele's former pupils is Marion Ceysens, a Belgian teacher of psychology and sociology at an Uccle secondary school, who has been running courses on the mind since 1982 and on PhotoReading since 1991. Although PhotoReading has become popular in the States, teachers of the technique are few and far between in Europe: two in Belgium, two in The Netherlands and one in Austria.

There were around 15 people in the course I attended. Vincent, a trainee teacher from Lille, wanted to make more time for himself and his family while at the same time maintaining his level of productivity at work. Philippe, a scientist, hoped to improve his long-term memory, as well as opening up his mind to new areas of knowledge and experience. Francois, a teacher of Kinesiology, wanted to take the stress out of reading and learning. Jean-Pierre, a bookseller, to acquire a more efficient method of book selection.

"Pleasure is the brain's way" say neurologists, and the first thing to learn about PhotoReading is that you have to treat it as a game. Children absorb masses of information without trying, simply out of natural curiosity; it is only at school that learning becomes an obligation, a conscious effort to beat one's neighbor.

Our first task was to read a two-page literary text in 45 seconds, answer a few questions, and then say how we felt. Most of the group admitted to feelings of stress, anxiety, confusion or frustration; the average result was around 20 percent. One person who said he had approached the exercise in a state of utter serenity got 60 percent—which just went to prove Marion's point. With music playing in the background, she encouraged us to feel at ease, to yawn, stretch and help ourselves to drinks and snacks; to change places, relax and have fun, to get rid of notions of "having to" and let go. Attempting the same exercise a second time, people were smiling and chuckling, ready to experiment, skim read, begin at the end, rely on their intuition. And when she invited us to get up and dance to Johnny Clegg before our first real attempt at PhotoReading, no one batted an eyelid.

Yet PhotoReading is not just about having fun. Discipline is required. There are five stages to the system: prepare, preview, PhotoRead, activate and "rapid read." Chanted over and over like mantra, they are now permanently rooted in my mind.

Preparing to PhotoRead is not unlike preparing for a yoga class: you sit comfortably, with your feet on the ground, and breathe regularly, imagining you have a tangerine on the top of your head, slightly to the back. The idea is to attain a state of "relaxed alertness, like a cat watching a mouse." It is also important to establish why you are reading a particular text, whether it be to get a general overview or to pick out particular details or answers to specific problems, and to believe that the information you are about to PhotoRead will a) go in and b) be accessible. "Surveying" a text—scanning the front and back covers, the table of contents, titles, subtitles and words in bold or italics—will give you an idea of its structure, as well as a list of key or "trigger words" indicating the thrust of its content. A quick "review" of these words will tell you whether you want to bother with the text at all.

The process of PhotoReading isn't really reading at all: instead of bringing individual words into sharp focus, you soften the vision so that the whole (or double) page comes into view, turning the pages at the rate of one a second. You can "mentally photograph" a book in three to five minutes, but are unlikely to be consciously aware of its content when you have finished. The next step is to activate the information you need by asking questions and exploring the areas of the text to which you feel most attracted, super reading the most important parts by scanning down the center of each page, and dipping into the text at appropriate points for details.

Rapid reading—moving your eyes quickly down a text—is advised at the start of the learning process to reassure PhotoReaders that they will not forget what they have read. It is normal to experience confusion at the start, says Marion, but as long as you relax, take your time and believe it will work, you will reap considerable benefits.

Reading between the lines

Feedback from students on Marion Ceysens' four-day course in PhotoReading was overwhelmingly positive. Those who had previously found reading stressful said they already felt more relaxed, whether before, during or after. Others felt they were reading more efficiently, having overcome the notion that to read properly meant having to read everything. Other benefits included improved concentration, broader vision and increased faith in intuition.

A veteran PhotoReader visiting the class confirmed the new recruits' faith in the technique. "Now I spend about forty minutes learning stuff that used to take me three to four hours. I feel confident that what I have learned has sunk in. Coming to the course was an extraordinary piece of luck."

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