2014-05-21

Co.Exist

Why You Aren't Doing Yourself Any Favors Using Speed Reading Apps

Speed reading on your phone may seem efficient, but it may be so efficient that it barely enters your brain at all.

It may not be the best idea to speed read through War and Peace on your smartphone.

Spritz is an app that aims to allow users to do just this, and it’s been getting a lot of buzz lately, especially with Samsung announcing that the app will be pre-loaded on its new Galaxy S5 phone.

The app breaks up the words of a text by showing the reader only one word at a time, bringing the eyes’ attention to the middle of the word. By minimizing the time usually wasted on eye movements, the company says its app--based on a method known as "rapid serial visual presentation" or RSVP--speeds up the reading process without sacrificing comprehension. You could read as fast as 1,000 words per minute. And while Spritz can be used on any screen, the method seems even more ideal for smaller device interfaces of the future, like the tiny screens of a smartwatch.

But a new study shows that the idea of finishing a beach read during a lunch break, or reading Infinite Jest on a lazy afternoon, might be too good to be true--at least if your goal is to comprehend what you’re reading. It also raises the question: Should we really be trying to change a fundamental cognitive process to suit the needs of our shrinking computing devices?

“Even if you were to Spritz only a tweet to yourself, you might not understand it as well as if you read the 140 characters at a leisurely pace,” says Elizabeth Schotter, a psychological scientist at the University of California, San Diego.

With help from 40 college student volunteers, Schotter looked at whether reading comprehension would drop if she prevented them from moving their eyes back to re-read bits of text, a process called a “regression.” These regressions happen about 10% to 15% of the time during reading.

The results were telling. During normal reading, students' comprehension was the same whether or not their eyes made regressions. This suggests our eyes backtrack when we need a second glance to process a word. When words were masked right after being read, so that there could be no regressions, the subjects showed “impaired” reading comprehension. This held true both when the sentences were extremely simple and when they were ambiguous or convoluted. "The results of our experiment are quite straightforward and demonstrate that readers’ control over their eye movements is important for their comprehension," the authors write.

Spritz is the most talked about attempt to use the RSVP method, which has been around in researcher experiments since the 1970s but has only been talked about for speed reading recently--likely due to the need for different reading methods on increasingly smaller digital screens. Another service called Spreeder is similar and has been available for a while on the web.

The study didn't utilize the exact Spritz technology, points out Lowell Eschen, a company representative who responded to Co.Exist's email. In fact, Spritz's app does add the twist of highlighting the “optimal recognition point” of each word, which it says helps the brain more quickly recognize each word by pointing the eye to the key middle point. Spritz says they represent "reading reimagined."

But Schotter doesn’t buy the marketing claims and says she hasn’t seen the Spritz team, which says its technology has been in development for three years, back up any of its scientific claims with published methods or results that others can look at.

“They are claiming they are doing science, but they have never actually shown it,” she says. “They are not really revolutionizing anything. They are maybe tweaking the RSVP method a little bit, but that’s a method that is still not good.”

[Image: Tired eyes via Shutterstock]

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