You can’t speed read (5-10x faster) without a corresponding loss in comprehension, but it turns out that you can read faster and understand more of what you read if you improve the user experience inside the foveal window. This post describes relevant terms and examines empirical evidence on improving the user experience of reading. A link to a related white paper on improving the user experience of reading is also included.
Recently, the New York Times published an article “Sorry, You Can’t Speed Read” by Jeffrey M. Zacks and Rebecca Treiman. The article covers the challenges of improving our individual abilities to read faster without significant compromises.
Here at Asymmetrica we have over 40 years of combined experience studying visual perception, reading, and comprehending meaning, both in theory and application. Our work on Asym supports the premise that reading dramatically faster comes at a price to the comprehension and understanding of the content we read.
The Experience Shapes the Meaning
Techniques used to speed read work by rapidly scanning or skimming text. They work because they fundamentally reduce cognitive load during the reading process by leaving out significant content. The result is faster reading. But this speed comes at a cost. At best, speed reading loses critical context and shades of meaning in the author’s message. At worst, it changes the meaning of what we read.
Viewing an individual RGB cell in isolation gives an incomplete picture – context is critical even to “comprehend a pixel”.
Even products such as Spritz and Squirt, which are based on the Rapid Serial Visual Presentation (RSVP) technique, have their own drawbacks. Although they don’t skip content — every word gets presented — they decrease comprehension at higher rates of speed. Words were never designed to stand on their own; they are meant to be interpreted in the context of the phrases and sentences in which they occur. Like presenting individual pixels on a screen one at a time without including the surrounding pixels, RSVP techniques strip away vital context and present fragments that were never designed to stand on their own. The result is fragments of a picture, rather than the complete picture.
Science tells us we can’t read 10x faster without significant trade-offs in comprehension. So what can we do to help our brains read better? Improve the user experience of text.
First let’s talk about what reading really is and where cognitive improvements can be made.
Natural Language Understanding = Hard AI Problem.
Natural language understanding is one of the hardest problems for computers to get right.
The human brain is extremely complex and capable of processing thought, meaning, and critical thinking in ways that even the largest supercomputers and most ambitious AIs created by some of the largest companies have yet to approximate. When we read, our brains perform a deceptively complex set of both serial and parallel functions to turn pixels, letters, words, sentences, and discourse into “meaning.” Complicating things further, human language often contains many non-literal contextual markers like humor, irony, or other indirect modifiers which invert or mean the opposite of the literal meaning. Sometimes these subtleties are the point. Or there may not seem to be a point if you miss the punchline of a joke.
The Act of Understanding
Order and position matter. Often these can be a source of mistakes, confusion, or errors in one of these processes. We make mistakes – miscues – in reading all the time, but we use context to correct course and get back on track. Wolfgang Iser described reading as an act, the act of using text on a page to generate our own virtual text that translates symbols on a page into personal meaning. Reading is an act of constantly generating and comparing our virtual text to the text we are reading. While not everyone agrees completely with Iser’s interpretation, most agree reading (like listening) is an interactive process, where the reader is trying to guess the author’s (or speaker’s) intent. Reading, like other cognitive activities, is part passive perception, part active reconstruction, building understanding as we go.
This is the magic of language – you can get inside the head of someone else and understand his or her thoughts, even when those thoughts are separated by large distances or thousands of years in time. The written word has a special impact, a certain umph, maybe because there’s an implicit contract when someone takes the time to put their thoughts into writing. When writing is done right, the reader wants to understand.
You Can’t Speed Up the Clock Speed of your Brain’s Processor…
Hobbyists sometimes use liquid nitrogen to cool an overclocked computer processor. This is probably not a viable option for overclocking your brain.
Reading depends on biomechanical processes, and the speed of these biomechanical processes in our brains are fixed. Some brains may be more adept and some less adept at this (e.g., due to individual differences, development, dysfunction, or trauma) at certain parts of the reading experience. But in the end we are all speed-limited by the boundaries of chemistry and physics, attention and perception, and memory and cognition.
One of the limits on these cognitive abilities is anatomical. Our eyes have a specialized region in the retina called the fovea that we use for detailed visual analysis, such as during reading or driving. The fovea contains about 1% of the surface area of the retina, but the brain devotes about 50% of visual cortex to analysis of the signals coming from this tiny, crucial set of neurons. This special part of the eye has evolved to break down the world in exquisite detail, but the detail that it can see is only a small window of our visual world, typically a little more than a dozen letters, or about 2-3 words wide.
The brain devotes about 50% of the visual cortex to analysis of the signals coming from the fovea, which is only 1% of the surface area of the retina.
To read or perform any other complex visual activity, we have to move this window across the environment by moving our eyes and turning our head or body. The outside world gets represented in our heads as a series of tiny hi-res snapshots. As we scan our eyes across a visual scene, our brains integrate these snapshots into a seamless experience. Unfortunately for reading comprehension, the peripheral information outside the foveal window is blurry. We use this blurry area (the 99% of retinal real estate outside of our foveal window) for detecting motion. Thus, a real bottleneck in cognition for activities like reading is how information is packed into this narrow foveal window that we see through.
Once information is through the window, other slower forms of processing integrate the words into structure and meaning. Forcing information into the foveal window faster with technologies like Spritz or Squirt doesn’t help with understanding it better. Before your brain can integrate the information from this foveal window, it needs to be in an efficient package. But what’s an efficient package?
An Ideal Package of Information
An efficient package is a small chunk of words – a phrase – one of many structural patterns that occur over and over again in the language. Your brain is fast at recognizing these patterns, and ultimately uses them as building blocks to resolve ambiguities as you build up the structure and meaning of a sentence during processing. Ideally, the information from a single phrase or chunk would fall inside the foveal window – one chunk per foveal snapshot.
Otherwise, your brain has to determine which words belong in which chunks across two different snapshots (separated by an eye movement). This is harder, less efficient, and more prone to errors. Given the small size of the foveal window, optimization is not about faster information flow into the window, but about good packaging of the information. In an ideal reading environment, the eyes would process one package of meaning (one phrase) per window. Good packaging speeds output to the next stages of language processing, where higher order relationships among phrases can be resolved.
There are many ‘packaging’ techniques used to help readers identify meaningful chunks. The white paper Augmenting reading performance: The history and science of chunking via text formatting examines the variety of techniques used to help readers chunk effectively. Reading the white paper will introduce you to:
- How language is organized into phrases, clauses, and sentences (chunks) during comprehension;
- a rich history where writing systems fully marked these chunks, but modern writing systems only mark the ends of major clauses and sentences;
- a synopsis of decades of research that show that chunking improves reading performance;
- how good readers have eye-movement patterns that correspond to meaningful chunks; and
- the ways to cue poor or distracted readers to have the same eye-movement patterns of good readers.
The takeaway is that distracted or otherwise challenged readers can have eye-movement patterns identical to those of excellent, undistracted readers if appropriate techniques are used to chunk text. Given the distraction-rich environments in which we read, we see chunking text as a valuable tool to enhance reading ability. We want to bring the benefits of this technique to as many readers as possible.
How to Fight a Perfect Storm?
Given society’s large shift towards mobile devices like phones and tablets, our reading experiences can now happen anywhere and anytime. Cutting cords has given us new freedoms, but also new burdens. Not only has more data and content been made available for us to read, we are now more and more distracted by mobile surroundings. The rising currents of information combined with a climate of distracting devices creates a veritable hurricane that wreaks havoc with understanding what we read.
This is why at Asymmetrica we have a sense of urgency. Our transition from the information age to the networked age has deluged all of us with an ever increasing wall of information. This deluge is only going to get more intense. To develop a solution, we carefully examined what we can and can’t do. We know you can’t speed up the clock speed of your brain’s processor, but you can remove unnecessary operations by chunking information into a more efficient representation. This ‘wasting less time’ approach is the heart of our solution.
Waste Less Time
Readers of content that use chunking aren’t as much reading faster as wasting less time while reading. With effective chunking, each eye movement is more efficient – our phrase-marking gives your brain natural cues for where to pause during reading. The content remains the same, but because eye movements are more efficient, the brain can efficiently integrate every chunk of meaning into the stream of understanding. With Asym, people aren’t cramming in more information faster, they’re comprehending more effectively.
Better Comprehension Can Lead to a Better World
Speed reading (1000% faster) won’t change the world beyond teaching people how to skim text. Improving comprehension is a different story. Significant improvement in comprehension is not only possible, it is practical. It can help companies keep users on a webpage. It can improve conversion rates on calls to action. In today’s post-mobile, highly networked, distraction-rich world of information overwhelm, better understanding might just lead to a better world. The 10-35% improvements we’ve seen from chunking are the difference of a letter grade (or more) for a student in school. It may be the difference between understanding and not understanding what we read. And it could be the difference between someone learning (or re-learning) to read, and someone giving up in frustration.
In the words of Herbert Simon more than 40 years ago:
In an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes
He concludes by saying:
. . . a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.
We designed Asym to address the poverty of attention so elegantly described by Herbert. If our solution to modern distractibility helps even a few at-risk readers, it has more than met our mission.
Asym technology is uniquely positioned at a crossroads where design and science meet typography. We hope it’s worth putting on your map.