You Can Hack Your Brain To Listen Faster.

Improving understanding in the modern world

Matt Inman
May 22, 2020 · 4 min read
Photo by Mihai Andoni from FreeImages

Full Disclosure, I’ve never been a fast reader. My comprehension suffers as my reading speed increases. Many of you may experience the same affliction, finding yourself flipping back pages, not having a clue what you just read.

In my quest to read faster and keep up my understanding, I investigated supplementing my print reading with audio programs. Whether it is a podcast or an audiobook, these formats seem to be a perfect balance of speed and learning.

Listening to programs is how many of us get our news and reading today. This change is due mostly to the hustle and bustle of today’s busy lifestyle. People listen on their commutes, others while doing chores around the house, or while exercising.

According to a Forbes article, audiobook sales alone have grown in double digits for the last seven years. With the most recent data showing sales at almost 1 Billion dollars in 2018.

These formats have become a supplement and, in some cases, a substitute for the written word. As a writer, this may sound counterproductive. Most writers will tell you that being a well-rounded print reader is vital to the writing process. I believe we can compromise and make room for both. I, for instance, tend to read more nonfiction and listen to more fiction.

What if you could listen faster?

A while back, a friend and I were discussing an audiobook we were reading. The book was enjoyable, but I commented that the narrator was a tad annoying. His next statement changed the way I listen to audiobooks.

“Oh, I just change the speed of the playback, and his voice becomes much better.”

Until that point, changing the playback speed of an audiobook had never occurred to me. When I tried it, I realized he was right. Not only was it more comfortable listening to the narrator, but it had the bonus of taking less time to finish the book.

Many of you may already do this with audio. This made me wonder, how fast can one actually listen to the spoken word and still comprehend the meaning. After a bit of research, I found out it’s much quicker than you would think.

In a study done at the Hertie Institute for Clinical Brain Research, an average sighted person can understand speech at six syllables per second. I say sighted because, in their study, they found some blind people can listen and comprehend speech at an astonishing 25 syllables per second. The researchers show that a blind person can repurpose parts of their brains used for visual processing and use it for auditory processing. Talk about a brain hack.

Here is an example of speech at those speeds.

You may be thinking the same thing I was when I read the article. Could we do that with our brains? It turns out you can do better than six syllables a second, but you will need to work at it.

What can you do?

Photo by Malte Wingen on Unsplash

Simple, you practice listening. You are already going to listen to that audiobook or podcast anyway. You might as well hack your brain while you are at it.

Try this exercise:

  • Start at a comfortable speed for you.
  • Listen for ten minutes at that speed.
  • Now change the playback to the next level.
  • Listen for another 10 minutes.
  • Keep changing every 10 minutes until you get to a rate that you start to feel some stress. You will know when you get there, because you will be concentrating on the words, and your comprehension will fall.
  • Now go back to the speed before this one, this is your current max speed.
  • Listen at the max speed for as long as you can.
  • Repeat the process every day or two, and you should see an improvement in your max speed.

You may find that you can’t listen as long at these speeds, you tire faster and feel more stress. It is a normal reaction as your brain adapts. The idea is to get your mind more comfortable listening at faster speeds.

Some caveats:

  1. Some narrators are harder to understand at faster speeds. It is because each of us has unique tones and intonations in our voice. You will find that you have to lower your rate for some people and raise it for others.
  2. You may also discover you have favorite narrators that you will enjoy listening to at a much slower speed. Bill Bryson and Neil Gaiman are my personal favorites. Their accents and natural speaking skills combine to bring joy to my ears.
  3. Some narrators are better at higher speeds. One particular narrator for me is like nails on a chalkboard, but if I turn up the playback speed, his voice flattens out.

I hope you take the challenge and increase your listening skills. Just think of all that extra content you could listen to each day by only a slight increase in speed.

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Matt Inman

Written by

Editor at Lighthouse, TEDx facilitator, and Travel nerd. Connecting with amazing people to encourage you to take action in your life. Let’s talk —

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +799K followers.

Matt Inman

Written by

Editor at Lighthouse, TEDx facilitator, and Travel nerd. Connecting with amazing people to encourage you to take action in your life. Let’s talk —

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +799K followers.

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