Read this mind-blowing article in less than 30 seconds!

Ok, maybe not literally 30 seconds. (Or mind-blowing, for that matter; mildly interesting, perhaps?)

By now we’ve all heard about the “insane new app” that allows you to read comfortably at speeds of 500 words per minute, roughly twice the standard reading pace. Topping out at 1000 words per minute, this, according to the experts at the Huffington Post, would compute to being able to get through a 300-page book like Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in under 77 minutes, saving dozens of hours wasted delving through JK Rowling’s delightful prose. Just imagine how quickly you could get through a book of poetry this way!

The developers of this platform, Spritz, claim that the magic happens by projecting words one at a time in rapid-fire succession on the screen, a technique known as rapid serial visual presentation (RSVP), while also helpfully presenting them at their optimal recognition point (ORP), highlighting the letter most crucial for your brain to process the word. This then negates the time-consuming practice of eye saccades – moving your eyes across the screen as you read – searching for the ORP, typically located in the middle or slightly to the left of the word. Spritz combines ORP and RSVP so that words are not only presented at a blistering rate, not allowing you to internally vocalize Harry’s posh British accent, but also ensuring that they are located at the exact same – and optimal – position on the screen.

RSVP has been around for decades and has long been known to increase reading speeds. However, this technique has also come under criticism for impacting comprehension. One problem with RSVP is that it narrows your focus to only foveal vision, the content presented in the very center of your visual field. Unfortunately, the world (and the page) doesn’t just exist within these confines, meaning that parafoveal vision (the area outside of your direct focus) is neglected. However, a lot of important information is contained in those parafoveal regions, including cues about where to jump to next while reading. RSVP doesn’t allow for the preprocessing of this type of information, meaning you have no insight about what’s coming next in the text. Spritz claims that by placing words at their ORP the need for parafoveal preprocessing is negated because you automatically know where to focus for the next word. However, they don’t offer any solution to the loss of foreshadowing that is gleaned from preprocessing textual content.

Another concern over Spritz’s method is the absence of regressive saccades, the act of reading backwards. Again, reading backwards or re-reading information is undoubtedly time-consuming, but it can also be essential for fully comprehending a passage. What happens if you zone out while reading with Spritz? Better hope there wasn’t anything important that you missed, because there’s no going back, only onwards and upwards!

Dr. Benjamim Gagl, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Salzburg, explains that, far from being unnecessary time-consumers, these visual-cognitive processes are essential for adequate comprehension: “Although, these paradigms [RSVP and ORP] were very useful for various reasons, they are outdated and eye movement evidence suggests that parafoveal preprocessing, as well as regressive saccades, are central to normal fluent reading. Both parafoveal preprocessing and regressive saccades are not possible in a RSVP paradigm, which leads to differences in brain responses when compared to more natural reading paradigms.”

Despite these shortcomings, I have to confess, I was pretty impressed when I tried the beta mode on the company’s website – you can certainly discern what the passages are saying as they sprint across your screen, and it seemed to require less effort than deliberate skimming or other speed-reading methods. However, despite their claims of total comprehension, I did feel like something was lost in terms of processing and retaining content, not to mention the sheer pleasure that can be derived from reading. Previous studies of world-class speed-readers have shown that even among the best, adequate comprehension (roughly 75%) is lost at speeds of 600 words per minute. And any time you need to re-read a passage, in an abstruse piece of literature, say, or with an unfamiliar academic paper, Spritz seems like it would hurt more than it would help.

And then there’s the concern of fatigue. Somehow I doubt I’d be able to manage much more than 20 minutes using the device (I confess, I’m weak) before the words started blurring together and I lost my place – and my motivation. Admittedly though, screen fatigue happens even with conventional reading methods, so perhaps the gain in processing speed balances out the loss in total time spent doing it.

Clearly this app is not for everyone, nor for every purpose. Spritz certainly would have come in handy while I was prepping for my PhD oral defense, trying to skim through the hundreds of papers I’d read over the last three years. But when it comes to my Potter, I think I’ll stick with my internal narration. Expelliarmus!

Dana Smith

PhD student in Experimental Psychology at the University of Cambridge