Fast and forgetful: speed reading apps driven by hype

PHUKET: As readers plug into the insurmountable volume of information pouring in from the internet, the desire for knowledge consumption – though not new – abounds. We want to download expertise. (We’ve all seen the Matrix.) We want information; we want it all; and we want it fast. Enter: speed-reading applications.

Now, the hype surrounding speed reading apps such as Spritz, Velocity, Speed Reader Trainer and Acceleread have not gotten to the point at which users expect to be plugged into the grid and download the information – our bodies twitching as if on the verge of a seizure. However, the apps do claim to boost reading levels from 200 to 400 words per minute to more than 1,000 words per minute. At that rate, you could put a novel to bed in about 90 minutes.

Spritz has stolen most of the tech headlines with its “Optimal Recognition Point”, which the Boston-based company spent three years developing based on an older technology called Rapid Serial Visual Presentation (RSVP).

“It positions words in a spot on a display where you can recognize the word without moving your eye… About 80 per cent of reading time, conventionally, is spent moving your eye from one word to the next. So just placing each word in a spot where you don’t have to move your eye saves you a lot of time, and in that time, your brain can process the word you just read, and prepare for reading and recognizing the next word,” Frank Waldman, co-founder and CEO of Spritz, told Here & Now in March.

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Speed-reading tools are nothing new, having been very popular back in the 1950s. And the science that has backed them has always been seen by skeptics as shaky.

“When you factor out the amount of time spent thinking through complex and unfamiliar concepts – a rarity when people read for pleasure – reading is an appallingly mechanical process. You look at a word or several words. This is called a ‘fixation’, and it takes about 0.25 seconds on average. You move your eye to the next word or group of words. This is called a ‘saccade,’ which takes about 0.1 seconds on average. After this is repeated once or twice, you pause to comprehend the phrase you just looked at. That takes roughly 0.3 to 0.5 seconds on average,” University of California eye-tracking researcher Keith Rayner told LifeHacker.

Dr Rayner’s research presented in “Eye movements and information processing during reading” counters the claims of speed-readers and speed-reading app developers, who both claim that comprehension is sufficient.

“You can practice going faster and you probably will, but when you start going too fast you’ll start losing comprehension. Most speed-reading methods involve getting rid of subvocalization [internal speech made when reading]. Research shows that when you do that and the text is difficult, comprehension goes to pieces,” Dr Rayner said.

“Then with RSVP, words come pretty fast, but working memory gets overloaded and words come in faster than you can deal with them.”

But then again, maybe all of the tech gurus and scientists are missing the point.

Reading is about more than ticking titles off of a list and compiling information – it’s about character. It’s about a latte in a coffee shop and a cute girl in the corner who asks you what you’re reading, and that moment when you have to close the book and look because it had taken you to an entirely different world.

— Isaac Stone Simonelli

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