Vanessa Harrar of the University of Oxford and colleagues conducted one of the first investigations of how people with dyslexia process multisensory stimuli.

"Imagine you are having a conversation with someone when suddenly you hear your name uttered behind you," said Harrar.

"Your attention shifts from the person you are talking to—the visual—to the sound behind you. This is an example of a cross-sensory shift of attention. We found that shifting attention from visual to auditory stimuli is particularly difficult for people who have dyslexia compared to good readers," Harrar said.

Participants in the study were asked to push a button as quickly as possible when they heard a sound, saw a dim flash, or experienced both together. The speed with which they pressed the buttons was recorded and analysed.

While everyone was fastest when the same type of stimuli repeated itself, the data showed that people with dyslexia were particularly slow at pressing the button when a sound-only trial followed a visual-only trial.

In other words, they showed "sluggish attention shifting," particularly when asked to shift their attention from a flash of light to a sound.
While the researchers said further study is needed, they suggest based on the findings that dyslexia training programmes should take this asymmetry into account.

"We think that people with dyslexia might learn associations between letters and their sounds faster if they first hear the sound and then see the corresponding letter or word," Harrar said.

Harrar's team proposed a unique, nonverbal approach to improve reading and writing with action video games.

"We propose that training people with dyslexia to shift attention quickly from visual to auditory stimuli and back - such as with a video game, where attention is constantly shifting focus - might also improve literacy," Harrar said.

"Action video games have been shown to improve multitasking skills and might also be beneficial in improving the speed with which people with dyslexia shift attention from one task, or sense, to another," she said.

The study was published in journal Current Biology.


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