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Speed reading is for real - Arvind Narayanan's journal [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]

Speed reading is for real [Aug. 22nd, 2008|05:32 pm]
Arvind Narayanan
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Some people are apparently under the impression that speed reading is a scam, fake, or impossible, because of the overblown claims surrounding it. Let me throw you an analogy: just because the world is full of fat loss scammers doesn't mean that fat loss is impossible.

Here's an example to show you how speed reading works. Consider this paragraph from The Omnivore's Dilemma:
A case can be made that the corn plant's population explosion in places like Iowa is responsible for pushing out not only other plants but the animals and finally the people, too. Whyen Naylor's grandfather arrived in America the population of Greene County was near its peak: 16,467 people. In the most recent census it had fallen to 10,366. There are many reasons for the depopulation of the American Farm Belt, but the triumph of corn deserves a large share of the blame—or credit, depending on your point of view.
This entire paragraph represents one concept. It is likely stored as a single, atomic thought in your head. Further, it is a concept that should require very little effort to grasp if you've read the book up until that point; if you are perceptive enough, you may already have grasped it.

What you ultimately remember after you've read a book are ideas, not words or numbers; there is no reason you should have to pay attention to individual words in order to derive the benefit of reading. Most people learn to read without focusing on individual letters; speed reading simply extends this to the level of taking in a whole sentence or paragraph at one glance.

Speed reading guides or classes might teach you techniques such as eliminating subvocalization, but while such techniques are necessary for speed reading, they are not sufficient. Ultimately, what matters is your ability to draw from your store of knowledge and concepts in order to perceive the author's meaning in the least possible time. Naturally, it requires significantly more mental effort than normal reading.

If you can master it, however, the benefits are obvious and enormous, especially to heavy readers. Most people should be able to cut their reading time to a fifth without hindering comprehension.
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: forvrkate
2008-08-23 01:49 am (UTC)
I enjoyed the Omnivore's Dilemma. The first half of it more than the second, though.
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2008-08-23 03:16 am (UTC)
interesting. haven't gotten to the second part yet.
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[User Picture]From: drederick
2008-08-23 03:01 am (UTC)

Are there any studies which verify "most people should be able to cut their reading time to a fifth without hindering comprehension." The claims I have heard are that when they actually test the reading comprehension of speed readers they find it much lower than the speed reader realizes. However perhaps their tests focus too much on remembering irrelevant details so the speed reader who only wants to get the important concepts is unfairly penalized.
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2008-08-23 03:20 am (UTC)
exactly. i don't know how you could possibly test retention of concepts, because it is subjective. the tests i've seen always have irrelevant questions.

my comment was based purely on (again, a subjective) estimate of the ratio between the linguistic structural complexity of a typical sentence/paragraph and the abstract structural complexity of the concept it represents.
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2008-08-23 04:19 am (UTC)
in other words, i pulled it out of my ass.
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From: fixious
2008-08-23 12:14 pm (UTC)
I don't buy the analogy between words and sentences/paragraphs; we can read the former as units because we've stored a lexicon (and mapped them to the orthographic representations). As far as whether the benefits of speed reading are enormous, it only applies to texts such as those quoted ... it would be really sad if (good) creative writing was skimmed, and you'll likely miss details when speed-reading technical prose.
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2008-08-23 03:53 pm (UTC)
"I don't buy the analogy between words and sentences/paragraphs;"

heh. what exactly are you disputing? i can actually do what i'm talking about, you know.

that was not an analogy. it doesn't work in the same way at the level of paragraphs, but you can still do it.

"As far as whether the benefits of speed reading are enormous, it only applies to texts such as those quoted ... it would be really sad if (good) creative writing was skimmed, and you'll likely miss details when speed-reading technical prose."

of course.
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From: fixious
2008-08-23 04:51 pm (UTC)
I'm not disputing you can speed-read. But you seem to imply that you map sentences (by which I mean the sequences of symbols rather than of lexical items) to ideas just as easily as people map written words to their meanings, which is pretty far-fetched.
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2008-08-23 04:53 pm (UTC)
c'mon, i did say

"Naturally, it requires significantly more mental effort than normal reading."

in the post.
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From: fixious
2008-08-23 05:05 pm (UTC)
It wouldn't require more mental effort, it would require a completely different mental wiring. But I trust you're not being literal, or that I'm misunderstanding.
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[User Picture]From: matt_walker
2008-08-25 01:19 pm (UTC)
What you ultimately remember after you've read a book are ideas, not words or numbers; there is no reason you should have to pay attention to individual words in order to derive the benefit of reading.


You're describing a particular type of reading, here. Certainly in technical papers or pop literature, the ideas are the only takeaway (and they're far more densely packed in the former than the latter). But in other forms of literature, like poetry, the reader is intended to take away more than just ideas: the words, sentences, and structure are memorable, too.

That being said, I don't doubt it's possible to skim most text looking only for the concepts while not actually sounding out each word in your head =)
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