Kim Peek was a truly exceptional person. He provided the inspiration for Raymond Babbitt’s character in the 1988 film Rain Man, and his abilities included a reading rate of around 10,000 words per minute – 40 times faster than the average rate.
His extraordinary talent, and the very successful movie, both promoted a new interest in the technique of speed reading, which has been around since the 1950s. It remains popular today, as evidenced by hundreds of online courses promising astounding results. In addition to this, as a culture we are speeding up our consumption of video and audio as apps and browser plug-ins allow users to fast-forward podcasts and box sets. So, what is this need for speed all about?
According to ‘podfaster’ Lindsay Lanquist, it’s about making sure you don’t miss out. “FOMO serves as a callous reminder that… I can’t possibly learn, or see, or experience all the wonderful, interesting things that are available to me. Instead, I have to pick and choose. As silly as it sounds, podfasting gives me an opportunity to transcend that cruel reality,” she says. This feeling has been echoed by many other podfasters who can’t face missing an episode. Apparently, the sheer amount of content out there is giving people FOMO (fear of missing out). So far, so 2020. But does our brain really work that way – can we train our minds to consume content on fast-forward?
The answers seem to centre around comprehension. In terms of reading, we now know that that we actually read to ourselves, or subvocalise, as part of the process of understanding text. According to Professor of Linguistics J. Charles Alderson, “There is a growing consensus in recent cognitive psychology research literature that… readers typically identify the sound of words as part of the process of identifying their meaning.”
Speed readers claim that subvocalisation is the ‘bottleneck’ to upping your reading rate, but the science actually teaches us that if you’re not reading the words to yourself, you have very little chance of understanding the text, let alone reflecting on its meaning.
So much for speed reading, but surely watching and listening are different? Steve Rousseau tried podfasting for Medium and found that, at anything over twice the normal speed, the experience began to change. “At these high speeds, my brain seemed to shift… towards baseline comprehension,” he explains. Even more concerning was economist Micael Dahlen’s experience which meant he couldn’t go back to enjoying programmes at a normal speed after speed watching Modern Family.
For many of us who work with words it seems counterintuitive to speed things up; writing, editing and proofreading are slow work. Our end goal is text which is as clear and concise as it can be, and the result is not intended to be binged (unsurprisingly, film and TV directors feel the same about their work).
It certainly looks like fast-forwarding is not going anywhere, as it provides one solution to our overwhelm in the face of millions of hours of online content. But we do have a choice. Perhaps those of us who consume books and media at a ‘normal’ speed have to make peace with the fact we can’t get through everything, while those of us speed watching 15 seasons of Grey’s Anatomy can at least feel reassured that we’re not missing anything – apart, perhaps, from the point.