Illustration: Matija Medved

Optimize Me

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.

MyMy 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 cliff, as most people can’t recognize the words presented at 2x speed, much less understand the meaning of a sentence.

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.

Pastore says that while people can comprehend content presented at faster speeds, the sweet spot seems to be 1.25x — around 190 words per minute. “Whether it’s for entertainment or learning, people prefer about 1.25-times, compressing something by 10% to 25%,” he says. “Most people did not support 1.5-times, even though they could learn from it.”

However, understanding a passage isn’t the same thing as committing it to memory. Paul King, a professor of communications studies at Texas Christian University, found that while people can follow a conversation or repeat back a string of numbers when the audio is sped up, indicating that their comprehension and short-term memory are the same, there was a significant drop in long-term memory of material presented at a faster rate. He thinks this is because the compressed presentation time doesn’t allow people to process the information in a meaningful manner.

“The way that we get things into long term memory is we process it very deeply because you have to make connections between the new information that you’re learning and the things that you already know,” he says. “The way that you do that is think about it, compare it, understand it fully, appreciate it, and see what it relates to.”

What’s more, King discovered that people felt more anxious and enjoyed the content less when it was sped up. “People really started hating having to listen at that higher speed,” he says. “Even if they could do it, it was putting a lot of pressure on them.”

If you’re dedicated to listening in the fast lane, all is not lost. Research suggests you may be able to train yourself to process speech at faster speeds by dedicating more brain space to the endeavor. When scientists in Germany trained people over the course of six months to process fast (300 words per minute, or 2x speed) and ultra-fast speech (600 words per minute, or 4x speed), more areas of the brain were activated, including two regions that are associated with internal monologue and learning a new motor task. Incredibly, some people who are visually impaired can understand speech at a blistering 825 words per minute because areas of the brain typically dedicated to vision are used to process auditory information instead.

Just because you can speed up your media intake, though, doesn’t necessarily mean you should. When Netflix announced it was introducing the ability to speed up content, directors and actors were outraged, saying an aspect of the art would be lost. My friend Meggie — the “podfaster” — agrees that speeding up TV and movies is a line that shouldn’t be crossed. She says, “It would almost feel like a violation to speed that up because I know that it’s been intentionally crafted in such a way so that it will reveal itself at a certain pace.”

Ironically, it turns out that TV and radio stations have been speeding up songs and syndicated content by 5% for years to sneak more ads in. Guess some things are more important than art.

Health and science writer • PhD in 🧠 • Words in Scientific American, STAT, The Atlantic, The Guardian • Award-winning Covid-19 coverage for Elemental

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