Reading Faster than the Speed of Thought – Is Speed Reading for Real?

Since we are kids we always have that silent aspiration to be something larger than life, to find that super power that will make us pop out of the 2 dimensional poster of our ordinary life and start living a richer, colourful life in extra-ordinary ways and through exceptional means. Being completely honest about it, if I had to dig deep I will definitely find my inner child still tinkering with the idea…and that’s a good thing I suppose.

An interesting side note to the whole idea of superhuman powers is that when you look at the powers projected onto comic strip heroes you will find that the only powers which are unmatched in ‘reality’ are physical ones. You know, like flying in a jiffy from pole to pole in a dandy costume or holding a building on the palm of your hand or shape-shifting into another form, etc. When it comes to ‘mind powers’, you will always find that some humans have shown to have manifested those abilities in some way or another throughout history – Mind over matter, telepathy, remote viewing, the incredible gifts of autistic savants and so many others.

In our information-laden society, we have put the spotlight on some modern-day superpowers such as photographic memory and speed reading – the ability to read up to around 300% faster than normal reading. People who speed-read or teach speed-reading will tell you that in reality, speed-reading is not some sort of power but rather is achieved through unlearning and relearning sub-routines on how we read. Various online courses such as Iris Reading will in fact guide you step by step in relearning how to read without all the limitations and bottleneck of conventional reading.

The questions many people ask is “Is it for real?”, “Can we read The Lord of the Rings from cover to cover in an hour or so?”. To be able to make a final judgment about that, one has to look into the theory and logic behind speed reading and of course, try it out for oneself.

What’s the limit?

The average reader in the U.S can read normal text  at a rate of 200-300 wpm (words per minute) with the top 1% of the population  reading over 400 wpm.  Now what proponents of speed reading claim is that people can read up to 2000 to 3000 wpm (up to 10 pegs per minute or a 300 page book in half an hour).

For example, Tim Ferriss had claimed that in a 3-hour cognitive experiment known as the PX project, speakers of five languages, including dyslexics increased their reading speed by 386%. Let’s have a look on how this is possible.

Eliminating Jumps and Stops

When one studies the visual processing and eye movements involved in reading, it is seen how normally we read in certain patterns and routines. One of these patterns is called saccadic movements (jumps). This means that instead of reading by following a straight line, we make small jumps and pause for 0.25 – 0.5 seconds to take a snapshot of text within the focus area and carry on with the next one and so on. These cumulative pauses of these saccadic movements increase considerably the time required to read through a certain amount of text.

The other pattern is called regression. In simple words it means that we very often back-skip to reread a word and this process cumulatively takes 30% of the total reading time.  So, when you learn to speed-read, the first thing is to re-train yourself to read with no saccades or regressions.

The way that this is normally done is by using a tracker and pacer – most commonly a simple pen. Use a pen (with cap on) under your hand and flat on a page and underline each line for about  a second per line then increase to about 1/2 second per line while keeping your eye fixation on the tip of the pen. Do not worry about comprehension. At first while practicing this, nobody will understand anything and this is normal. The exercise is just used to train your brain into pacing the reading speed. Comprehension will gradually come later after repetition and practice.

Using Peripheral Vision Wisely

Another limitation in normal reading, according to speed-reading theory is that normal readers use only central focus but not horizontal peripheral vision thus missing out on 50% of the the total number of words that can be read per fixation. When we read from the first word to the last word on a line, we waste 25%-50% of our peripheral field on blank margins.

The proposed training for making better use of peripheral vision is to use the tracker and pacer technique to read but instead of reading from the first to last word, you practice by starting one word in to one word before the last. Maintain pace of one line per second and then increase to half a second per line. Once again do not think about comprehension. Keep on doing the exercise but progress to 2 words in from the start of the line to two words before the last. Finally the exercise should proceed to 3 words in from the both ends of the line.   With repetition and conditioning, the mind will start picking up around 6 words from its peripheral vision without using time in jumping (saccades) or back-skipping (regression).

Silencing the Inner Reader

Some speed reading techniques also involve re-training oneself to stop ‘sub-vocalising’ when reading. Sub-vocalisation is the tendency to ‘read aloud in our heads’ while visually processing the words on a page or screen. We do this naturally and it has got to do with how we understand and interpret language symbols. In fact this particular idea of sub-vocalisation is contested by some researchers on the ground that  sub-vocalisation is necessary for understanding what we’re reading since we process meaning through the sound of words and not just visually.

The Issue of Comprehension and the Validity of Speed Reading

The last point about comprehension is the bone of contention between proponents and critics of speed reading. The counter-argument to speed reading is that eliminating regression and sub-vocalisation will make comprehension extremely difficult. However the whole point behind speed reading theory is that the mind is flexible enough to retrain itself to read – and comprehend – using different pathways and routines. We learn a task such as reading because of conditioning even though Psychologists such as Steven Pinker consider reading and writing to be ‘cognitively unnatural’.

Yet this doesn’t dissolve the argument but makes it stronger. Through repetition and conditioning we can train ourselves to do something which feels, and in many ways is, unnatural to us. We can see this in so many different physical and mental feats that some humans managed to achieve through training themselves to do things differently.  What is different with reading?

Moreover, comprehension is something which cannot be ultimately objectified and it’s an elastic concept in itself. If after you put down a book or paper, I had to ask you to tell me what you understood, you can never summon up all the details but the mind would have extrapolated enough information to build a gist of the whole picture and this can vary wildly between different readers. Furthermore, speed reading can have specific applications. If you enjoy reading for leisure, you don’t need to speed read really as this takes away some of the pleasure of reading in itself. But if for example you need to read through a pile of papers to get a quick idea of some type of information while saving 30 minutes in the process, then we can start seeing the real value of having the ‘super-powers’ of reading extremely fast.

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