My previous post on speed reading is by far the most popular on my blog, and so I decided to throw in another 2 cents. The promise of breath-taking reading speeds still draws huge crowds despite the lack of credible evidence that speed-reading can be learned by anyone. Let me briefly define what I understand by speed-reading: reading at a speed exceeding 500 words/minute with decent comprehension and recall. Not skimming, not scanning, but actual faster reading.
For starters: speed-reading does exist. In my experience, passionate readers — e.g. life-long, voracious, obsessive-compulsive or very intelligent readers — reach 500+ w/m speeds quite naturally. Then there are prodigious readers such as Harold Bloom, and savants such as Kim Peek (and perhaps Daniel Tammet?). As far as the latter are concerned, my assumption is that their brains are wired differently, giving them special mnemonic abilities, sometimes at the expense of social skills.
The question is whether normal readers can re-wire their brains in order to read faster. Reading a lot does that. If you read the phrase “once upon a time” a thousand times, you won’t process it as four words but as one. This is “reading in chunks”, which is simply a matter of acquiring and strengthening knowledge, not training your brain to do anything different. It’s like learning vocabulary, only that the vocabulary considers of phrases rather than words.
By contrast, a lot of speed-reading courses claim that they can teach you to “read in chunks” not by means of learning vocabulary, but by breaking “bad” reading habits or acquiring “good” reading habits, respectively, e.g. getting rid of subvocalization or improving eye-movement. The Wikipedia article on subvocalization is a good example of speed-reading claims clashing with anti-speed-reading claims. The article suggests that speed-reading advocates misrepresent the role and effect of subvocalization in that they overestimate its negative impact on reading and reading comprehension; the author instead highlights the positive effect of subvocalization. From a practical point of view, I am wondering if anyone reading at speeds faster than 200 w/m — i.e. speeds at which lip-movement or movement of the larynx cannot be observed by the naked eye — should bother with anti-subvocalization exercises or whether such exercises are really only meant to help those readers who are still caught up in actually reading out aloud at speeds of 100 w/m.
As far as eye-movement is concerned, speed-reading supporters say that we can train our reading brain to absorb information faster by accelerating our eye-movement. They frequently argue that our brain is capable of retrieving information as fast as our eyes can see, as evidenced in our ability to look at pictures and see everything at once, and that therefore we should be able to read a page as though we were looking at a picture. On first glance, the picture analogy might make sense. When looking at pictures, we do seem to retrieve a lot of information at once, unlike when we read and take information in one word at a time. However, the analogy seems dubious once you consider the amount of information contained in a picture as opposed to a page. After all, a picture does not consist of symbols, but of things. When you see a house, you see a house, when you see a tree, you see a tree. When you see the word “tree”, on the other hand, you see black shapes, and only once you have deciphered them you realise that their meaning is “tree”. (The philosopher Paul Grice captured this difference in his distinction of natural meaning — “the spots on your skin mean measles” — versus non-natural meaning — “those three rings on the bell mean that the bus is full“.) Take a look at this picture and tell me how much of it you understood at one glance. I suspect that to decipher the picture completely it would take you about 4 minutes provided you know all the flags and countries of the world and don’t spend more than one second on each flag. Furthermore, when we look at a picture, we by no means absorb all the information at once. We only absorb the information we can chunk. If I look out of my window, for example, I roughly see this: bush, bush, bush, house, windows, door, tree, tree, lake, mountain, village, wall, fence, waves, clouds, boat, boat, car, etc. That’s certainly a lot of information and it includes visual and spatial information to boot, but I have by no means exhausted the information of what I’ve glimpsed. I cannot tell you how many tiles are on the roof of the house, or how many leaves are on the tree; heck, I cannot even tell you how many windows there are or how many bushes or boats exactly unless I take a second look and start counting. Add to that the fact that I looked out of my window hundreds of times, my picture-reading abilities no longer seem quite as impressive.
The fact remains that reading and seeing are not the same. Reading usually requires roughly three cognitive steps to get at the information you want — you see the black shape “tree”, you realise it’s a word, and you grasp the meaning of the word, evoking associations, images, what have you — whereas looking requires only two such steps, namely seeing the tree and realising it’s a tree. Some pictures, however, require three steps as well, which turns the page-as-picture theory upside down. Take a look at this image, for instance:
Has the fact that this is a picture and not a page accelerated your understanding of it? Have you grasped all the information contained in the picture at one glance? No, of course you haven’t, because this picture, like a page of writing, is a symbolic representation. We have to decipher it to get at its meaning.
Some speed-reading programmes claim — and this is the claim I find most titillating — that if you practise rapid eye-movement for a month or two, you will experience a “bicycle”-effect. That is to say, your comprehension will decrease more or less to zero at the beginning, just as someone who can’t yet ride a bicycle moves faster walking than trying to ride the bike, but if you keep at it, all of a sudden, your brain adapts to your eye-movement, and — snap! — you understand and are able to recall what your eyes have seen on the page, just as you can suddenly ride a bike because your brain’s finally “got it”.
As a didgeridoo player I made the same experience with circular breathing. You start practising and you get no results; you sit there for a month trying to make water bubble with a straw; then you experience tiny moments of success and all of a sudden, you’re able to do it, just like that. This is the kind of neural re-wiring speed-reading, as I understand it, promises.
I have grave doubts about the truths of such assertions, however, not only because of the nature of reading — reading being much more complex than bicycle riding or circular breathing since it involves the whole gamut of information, symbols, world knowledge, imagination, and so on — but because there is a surprising lack of speed-reading demonstrations. Where’s the Youtube video showing speed-readers in action? Why is the only speed-reader daring to demonstrate his skill the (awesome) illusionist Derren Brown?*
I would love to believe in speed-reading as a skill that can be taught and acquired, but the burden of proof is on the speed-readers (or on those selling speed-reading products, rather). From what I gather, they have tried surprisingly little to dispel the scepticism surrounding their claims. Why not consider the following test: get your camera, go to a local library, let one of the staffers pick a book at random, have you speed-read it and ask you a couple of questions. Such a demonstration, I believe would really help you gain the trust of many ordinary readers and boost sales at that. I am not saying that speed-reading is a hoax, but a smidgen of tangible proof would be most welcome.
* I think Derren’s using a mirror (or the camera reflection) to read from the book. I doubt there’s real photo-reading involved, although I won’t question that Derren’s a really clever guy. ;)