Scientists say it’s possible to speed read—we’re just doing it wrong

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This story is part of an ongoing series on Exceptional Humans and the scientists studying them to help us all benefit from their superhuman abilities.

Dan Holloway, an administrator at the University of Oxford, reads up to about 1,000 words per minute without struggling to recall what he’s read. 

Most college-educated people read anywhere between 200-400 words per minute, but Holloway taught himself to read faster when he was a student. Now, he uses the skill to read hundreds of books a year, and compete in London’s annual Mind Sports Olympiad. (He’s won gold at the speed-reading event three years in a row.)

American school teacher Evelyn Wood popularized speed-reading in the 1950s and 60s. She developed a handful of techniques to help people read up to many thousands of words per minute, and offered courses, tapes, and books to help people learn how. Since then, her work has been scorned and dismissed by scientists, who say there’s a tradeoff between speed and accuracy, and the faster you read something, the less you will understand it.

But now, researchers at the University of Wuppertal in Germany are trying to reconcile the massive speed-reading industry with academics who say your brain can only do so much. They’re doing cutting-edge research to prove that people can in fact read faster while maintaining comprehension. Over six weeks or less, they’re training participants to accelerate their reading, using a few basic strategies selected from decades of speed-reading literature. Ultimately, the goal of their research is to help people read more efficiently, and to figure out if we can change how our brains process information by changing the way we read.

In episode three of our video series Exceptional Humans, we go to London to compete against Holloway in a speed-reading competition, and then to Germany, where researchers are doing breakthrough research to show that with a few straightforward adjustments, we all can be better, faster readers.