Is Life Better at 1.5x Speed?
You can consume more content by speeding it up, but what is it doing to your brain?
Optimize Me is an Elemental column exploring (and fact-checking) the weirdest self-improvement trends. It comes out every Tuesday.
My friend Meggie consumes everything at 1.5x speed. She started doing it to zoom through work training videos and recordings of meetings she has to watch for her job at Google. Then she started speeding up the podcasts and audiobooks she listens to on her two-hour daily commute. She estimates she listens to 10 hours of audio content a week and can go through a couple of books a month this way.
“It’s almost like I can gameify [reading] by listening at faster speeds and be able to work through books more quickly so I can take more in,” she says.
YouTube, Audible, podcast apps, and now Netflix all allow you to speed up your media intake. Advocates say bumping up video or audio speed to 1.25x, 1.5x, or even 2x improves efficiency and saves precious time, allowing you to do and consume more. But at that rate, are you still getting the same information — not to mention enjoyment — out of the experience?
Although it seems like a symptom of the internet age, the idea of speed listening got its start in the 1960s, when scientists figured out that we read at roughly twice the rate we speak.
“The average adult reads about 275 words per minute, and the average adult speaks at about 150 words per minute, so you can see there’s a discrepancy there,” says Raymond Pastore, an assistant professor in the department of instructional technology, foundations, and secondary education at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. “But the way that we process that information is very much the same. So in theory, we should be able to listen just as fast as we can read, and comprehend at the same level.”
In several studies, Pastore has shown that students’ comprehension of a lecture is not affected when the audio is compressed by 25%, which corresponds to speeding it up by 1.33x. Other researchers have reported similar results, with no difference in comprehension at 1.5x and 1.8x speed. Above that rate, our understanding goes off a…