Speed-Reading Apps Will Not Revolutionize Anything, Except Your Understanding

The one-word-at-a-time presentation eliminates the eye movements that help you comprehend what you're reading.
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The one-word-at-a-time presentation eliminates the eye movements that help you comprehend what you're reading.
This is the good stuff. (Photo: Johannes Jansson/Wikimedia Commons)

This is the good stuff. (Photo: Johannes Jansson/Wikimedia Commons)

Spritz, a new speed-reading app company, suggests its technology will allow you to power through Atlas Shrugged in a day. The simple interface flashes one word of content at a time, at a rate you can pre-select. The Boston-based start-up has been operating in so-called "Stealth Mode" for almost three years, perfecting the system. The tool borrows from an older technology called Rapid Serial Visual Presentation, but has been enhanced by rejiggering the alignment of the words to the "Optimal Recognition Point," the target region of a word which allows your brain to process it. The new wrinkle, the company claims, eliminates the time your eyes squander locating the next OPR.

The app is available on the newest Samsung phones; websites, e-readers, and other systems may soon jump on the bandwagon, too.

This is what the future looks like at 250 words per minute (wpm), roughly the average reading speed:


Here's 350 wpm:


And 500 wpm (semi-warp speed):


While it's irresistibly alluring to feel as though you've suddenly stumbled on an ultimate life hack that enables you to consume knowledge at the pace of a legendary savant, it also makes you feel a bit like an epileptic robot.

As reporting by my incisive former colleague Olga Khazan at The Atlantic's health channel revealed last month, the whole speed reading fad has always been kind of shaky when it comes to the science.

Now, a new study, published last week in Psychological Science by University of California-San Diego post-doctoral psychology researcher Elizabeth Schotter and her colleagues (including Keith Rayner, one of the experts Khazan interviewed), provides even more evidence that the hype surrounding these kind of apps is mostly that. We're probably not on the verge of a revolutionary epistemological breakthrough because cognitive comprehension is actually quite dependent on the eye movements that Spritz aims to nix. The authors write:

[R]emoving eye movements from the reading process is precisely the fatal flaw in such speed-reading apps and the reason why they will not be useful for reading any text that is not extremely easy or short; control over the sequence and duration of word processing is the most important variable that supports reading, and control of the oculomotor system is crucial to accurate comprehension of text.

In an experiment, the researchers had 40 undergraduate subjects "read sentences both normally and in a condition in which words became masked after they moved their eyes away," meant to mimic the speed reading app experience of not being able to easily glance back. According to previous research, these movements are called "regressions," and readers do them "about 10% to 15% of the time...."

Comprehension of sentences decreased significantly in the condition where there was no opportunity to reprocess information, no matter the ambiguity of the constructions. Eye movements were not a burden; they were a key to knowledge.

"[O]ur data suggest that, although regressions ... add a small amount of time to the reading process," the researchers conclude, "the benefits they provide for understanding far outweigh the costs."