The rise of high speed learning in the digital world

The world is accelerating and the speed that we learn about it will need to speed up too. How can we gain new understanding and develop new skills at the same pace that the world is rushing forward?

Humans are adaptable and so are our brains. One adaption that guaranteed our species survival was our capacity to forage for food, and it seems now we are in the verge of a new adaptation essential to our existence, our capacity to forage for information.

In comic books, Superman used his incredible sense of hearing and his ability to speed-read to give him the advantage over his opponents. Super speed is possible for us mere mortals too. There are countless programs to improve reading speed and comprehension, all of which rely on engaging our brains with the material we are trying to understand instead of passively absorbing it.

When it comes to listening, research has shown that brains of some people who are blind can adapt to comprehend spoken language at a rate of 22 syllables per second, quite a bit faster than the average of 8. In practical terms this means that they could listen to 3 audio books in the time it takes a sighted person to read one.

Here is a sample of speech at 16 syllables a second, well beyond the average person’s ability to understand, but to someone with impaired sight, it is simple enough:

If your brain hasn’t quite adapted to that rate of listening yet, there is still hope. About 10% of the people who watch the educational videos of Khan Academy view them at a higher speed than they were recorded at. 50% of podcast app users listen to their programming in what is known as “smart speed” an accelerated playback that eliminates moments of silence. There are even brain-training apps out there that boast improvements to your listening speed by up to 10 times, although even experts on the subject recognize that anything above 5 times the speed ceases to be enjoyable.

User listening to a podcast

Wouldn’t all this rushing hurt your comprehension? Researchers from North Carolina and Florida Universities found that people listening to scientific information at 1.5 times the usual speed retained just as much information as people listening to it at the normal speed.

Speed alone isn’t going to be enough to keep pace in the new 1.5 speed world. Clive Thompson of goes a step further saying, “We need tools that nimbly parse multimedia.” Voice dictation software that can simultaneously create audio transcripts, podcast apps that automatically remove every moment of dead air and speed reading apps that can track the speed of your eye movement to keep text scrolling at the same pace that you are reading are just the beginning.

While we can train our brains towards faster information foraging, it is no easy task and any glitches could lead to permanent and even fatal errors in judgement and decision making. We need our brains to learn faster, retain more and filter wisely. In the world of fast food, speed dating and speed learning we need a 1.5 performing brain!

The Labs Team

Sutherland Labs