Read 3x faster by not reading at all

I studied psychophysics in grad school. So it’s been fascinating to notice just how much I’ve been able to increase the speed at which I understand audiobooks and podcasts.

There are a few techniques that really seem to help with accelerating listening speed, to 450 words per minute and beyond. What’s particularly cool is that they have a basis in some simple concepts in the cognitive sciences.

Before we dive in though, it’s worth spending a moment considering the state of the art when it comes to “speed reading”. Speed reading proponents point out that the speed you read depends on the amount of words you can read per eye movement multiplied by the number of eye movements you can make. Since it’s not really that easy to increase the speed that you make eye movements, there’s two presumed opportunities to increase reading speed:

  1. take in more words per eye movement, and
  2. avoid saccading altogether by having your eyes follow a smoothly moving target (like the tip of your finger)

Despite the fact that these techniques have been advocated for decades, the average reading speed of a college educated adult remains between 200 and 400 words per minute.

But really, if you think about it the goal isn’t really to read faster. It’s to take in and understand information more quickly. We developed writing and reading not because we wanted a faster way to communicate, but because we needed to record information. Though reading has traditionally been the best way to take in knowledge, this has been an artifact of our need to store it, not because it’s the best interface.

The last 10 years have radically changed the way we consume knowledge. Smart phones now make it possible to listen to hundreds of thousands of books and podcasts arbitrarily quickly. So might listening be a better way to take in knowledge?

Let’s consider for a moment the differences between the visual and auditory systems:

  • The visual system is best at processing the real world: understanding how a space is organized, recognizing faces, and locating and identifying objects. That is, for processing information that comes at us as 2D or 3D. We only need to spend a second or two looking around to understand what and where everything is in front of us. We’re able to do this by making around three eye movements per second, taking in chunks of information during visual fixations of 200 to 300 ms each. While the visual system is great at handling the visual world, this comes at the expense of its ability to deal with quick changes. Images from a movie displayed at 24 frames per second (or faster) blend together into smooth motion, even though each frame is visible for more than 41 ms.
  • On the other hand, the auditory system is great at processing information that is “1-D”, or streams of information. Information like sounds, music, and speech, which unlike the visual world are essentially one dimensional. We’re so good at this that we can reliably distinguish between sounds with differences on the order of 10 ms. The trade-off is reduced spatial ability: we tend to only have a rough sense for where the sounds we hear come from.

Researchers have tried to get around the limitations of the visual system using “Rapid Serial Visual Presentation” (RSVP), which is supposed to help you speed up your reading by presenting words in the same place on the screen, usually one at a time, but sometimes as many as four. The notion is that by eliminating the time you spend moving your eyes you will increase your reading speed. But as should be clear by now, this is a bit like trying to push a square peg through a round hole: we’re taking stream information and pushing it through a system optimized for 2D scenes.

While RSVP hasn’t really taken off, millions of people listen to podcasts and audiobooks at speeds exceeding 1.5x. So might there be an opportunity to achieve the promise of speed reading by abandoning reading altogether?

When I propose this to friends, the reaction is usually that speech, sped up (at least beyond 1.5x), sounds weird and hard to understand. Learning to read in the first place was arguably even weirder and less intuitive, but I digress. As for the strangeness of sped-up speech, I see two explanations. The first is that sped-up speech is somehow beyond our auditory system’s ability to process it. Another explanation is that it’s strange simply because it’s unfamiliar. I’m going to try and convince you that the reason is unfamiliarity.

We’re used to speech occurring at a particular speed. But the speed-limit on speech isn’t set by our ability to hear it. It’s set by our ability to produce it. Coming up with something interesting to say tends to be much more work than understanding it (as any comedian will tell you). Speaking is also limited by physics: our muscles’ abilities to coordinate and create intelligible sounds. The auditory system, on the other hand, is effectively a “solid state” device that suffers from no such mechanical limitations.

So when we hear speech at double speed it sounds “fast” not because it is so in any abstract sense, but just because that’s what we’re used to. We’ve habituated to speech at one speed. But this means we can habituate it to another.

This opens the door to tactics for rapidly and effectively increasing the speed at which you can take in information. In my experience, for light non-fiction you can get to an effective speed of over 450 words per minute and comfortably listen to audiobooks at more than 3x their normal speed.

Here are the key techniques:

  1. Maximize signal-to-noise. If you’re listening at normal speed, keeping one ear open works great. But to adapt most quickly to the new speed it’s helpful to increase the amplitude of the signal. Listen using both ears and be sure to set your volume to the highest level that’s still comfortable and safe.
  2. Habituate, then step-down. Your auditory system doesn’t want to have to do any extra work, and while it can handle faster speech, this higher load you’re putting on it will manifest itself as your auditory system “complaining” that the speech sounds too fast. Fortunately, you can trick your auditory system into becoming comfortable again. If you want to listen at 1.5x, but this level sounds too strange, spend 3–6 minutes listening at 2x. Then set it to back 1.5x. Miraculously, it will sound much slower than it did when you first tried it out.
  3. Work up to it. Like all skills, you will get better with practice.

A few notes:

  • Different kinds of content will accommodate different listening speeds. As mentioned, speeded listening is best for spoken word podcasts and mainstream non-fiction.
  • You will notice that your mood and the “speed of your brain” will also impose its own limitations.
  • Faster speakers can throw a wrench in the works. Venture Capitalist Marc Andreessen, who regularly talks at ~240 words per minute, can be incomprehensible at higher speeds.
  • Avoid being rude by asking people to talk faster :)

Enjoy developing your new superpower!