Michael J. McDonagh

An established writer who recently went to work becoming an author, trying valiantly to make someone give a damn and chronicling the process.

The Spritz or teh Shitz?

“Yea, yea, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.” — Ian Malcolm, Jurassic Park.

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  The developers of “Spritz” tout it as “an insane new app” that allows you to read 1,000 words per minute. I was somewhat surprised that the app’s developers and I have precisely the same assessment of the technology, since I’m not a fan and they are the people who are trying to sell it. First, a definition:

in·sane

inˈsān/ adjective 1. in a state of mind that prevents normal perception, behavior, or social interaction; seriously mentally ill. “certifying patients as clinically insane”

synonyms: mentally ill, mentally disordered, of unsound mind, certifiable.

This is a freaking milestone for truth in advertising. At least if you take it at face value. I’m sure they mean “insane” as in “check out how insane I am with my skateboard and bong full of Redbull.” In other words, “We’re a bunch of middle aged dudes who realized our target audience is our kids’ ages, so we’re trying to talk all hip and cool, like Shaun White or something, like the marketing consultants told us to.” First, there is nothing sadder than a dude who looks like this:

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“Wooooah, Dude, this is totally freaking insane!”

. . . talking like that. I know, because I look a hell of a lot more like the guy in that picture than whatever caricature of an awesome hipster stoner dude he’s trying to channel.  It’s still funny, though, because my biggest criticism of Spritz stems from the fact that it is insane — it quite literally, forces you to read “in a state of mind that prevents normal perception.”

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First, what is it?

Spritz is a concept that takes some of the science we covered in What the Reader Really Sees on the Page, and ignores the rest of the science behind how we read, in the name of reading faster. The app flashes text on the screen, one word at a time, at rates up to 1,000 words per minute. It looks like this:

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First off, that is 500 words a minute. Although they claim their mentally imbalanced insane app lets you read twice that fast, none of the posted examples actually go that high. They go half that high, which should probably tell you something –particularly if you find 500 WPM version as annoying as I do. There is no fucking way I could be bombarded like that for two or three hours.

But, that’s what it is (at 50% power, anyway).

What do they claim?

The Spritz people make all sorts of claims on their website and in their marketing materials. Their explanation is summarized on their webpage, which states:

Traditional reading involves publishing text in lines and moving your eyes sequentially from word to word. For each word, the eye seeks a certain point within the word, which we call the “Optimal Recognition Point” or ORP. After your eyes find the ORP, your brain starts to process the meaning of the word that you’re viewing. With each new word, your eyes move, called a “saccade”, and then your eyes seek out the ORP for that word. Once the ORP is found, processing the word for meaning and context occurs and your eyes move to the next word. When your eyes encounter punctuation within and between sentences, your brain is prompted to assemble all of the words that you have read and processes them into a coherent thought. When reading, only around 20% of your time is spent processing content. The remaining 80% is spent physically moving your eyes from word to word and scanning for the next ORP. With Spritz we help you get all that time back.

Are their claims true?

Some of the words they’re throwing around probably sound familiar if you read this blog. Much of what they are saying, when it comes to the process of how we read, is absolutely true. We move our eyes in saccades, hopping from word to word. We have a focal point (where your fovea is pointed). Our eyes find a point in the word that allows our brain to best process it (what they are calling the “ORP”).

Much of what they’re saying is blatantly misleading, though. For starters, it’s not like you have time to order a pizza while your eye is looking for a place to focus (the “ORP”) in the next word. Your brain already found it and told your eye where to go while you were reading the previous word. That’s the reason we see seven or eight letters ahead of the four letters we are focused on, regardless of whether we read left to right (e.g., English) or right to left (e.g., Hebrew). If the word is exceedingly familiar and a few letters long (like “and”) our fovea will never rest on it, it’s already moved to the following word.

I have absolutely no idea where they came up with the “20% of our time reading is spent processing content, and 80% is spent moving our eyes” thing. I tried to find a study supporting that (the Google machine brings back a lot of Spritz shitz, and nothing else). But the claim is idiotic just on its face. I know, because I read, and the entire time I’m reading, I have a little movie going on in my head. I haven’t had 20% movie, 80% waiting for the next frame of the movie since I stopped having to sound out every freaking word when I was five years old.

While it’s true the rate of eye movements is absolutely the gating issue when it comes to reading speed, they apparently didn’t realize that we developed our alphabetic/syllabic system of writing to function with the way we process words. We do so through the auditory faculties in our brains, which have only known “language” as anything but sound for between 1% and .0025% of the time our species has had language. So I think the Spritzheads have the concept completely backward — our ability to read is not limited by the system we created for communicating in writing, we developed a system of writing that mirrors our ability to convert letters into syllables, syllables into ideas, and “hear” what the hell is going on in the story.

This whole “we spend 80% of our time waiting for our eyes to move” concept is pure bullshit, and completely ignores the way the brain is planning the next saccade while the fovea is focused on a prior word. Something that spritz stops your brain from doing.

They make a slew of other claims I’m willing to call bullshit on, too.

  • This is not “new.” This technology has been around since the 1970s. The biggest innovation Spritz has to offer is hype.
  • Humans can talk faster than we normally talk, too, but we speak and, not coincidentally, read at a rate of 200-300 words per minute, which is the maximum rate at which we can communicate in any fashion without diminishing comprehension.
  • Speaking of comprehension (and speaking of complete bullshit), they claim “studies have shown” there is no decrease –and may even be an increase– in comprehension with Spritz. They don’t cite a single study, though, and thousands of studies have been performed on comprehension. Every reputable study concludes anything faster than 300 WPM comes at a comprehension cost.

Spritz is hyping itself by making claims about how humans read that blend a little bit of science with a whole pile of bullshit to offer a product that has basically been available since eight-track tapes were a thing. They also have to ignore most of the science behind reading — particularly the fact that our brain is processing what the next word is subconsciously while we are reading the prior word — in order to justify their product’s existence. You simply cannot read faster than our writing system is normally read without suffering a decrease in comprehension. You can’t even listen to someone talk faster than that without having the same problem.

Our language forms (written and verbal, including every language in use on the planet) are limited by, and have basically developed to work optimally with, our brain’s ability to process and comprehend. Can you throw more words at someone? You bet. Our ears and eyes can take in hundreds of times more words than our brains can process. If I don’t give a shit about comprehension, I can glance at a whole page of a book at once, while ten people are talking and the TV is on. If, on the other hand, I plan on comprehending the words I am presented with, then 300 is about my max — and yours, too — for any given minute of either of our lives.

Is Spritz worth a shitz?

Not really. There’s a reason this technology went the way of the bell-bottomed pants, eight-track tape, and pet rock. for one thing, not all saccades are forward. While the movie in our head is playing at 300 WPM, our eyes will sometimes double-check something we already read. And since we read, talk, and think in what is essentially real-time, reading a novel three times that fast would be –quite literally– like watching a movie played in fast forward.

If your goal was to just get through Moby Dick so you could say you read it, but had no intention of enjoying it, I guess it could work. I can’t imagine being thrilled you just crushed every poem Maya Angelou ever wrote during one lunch break, but that’s effectively what Spritz has to offer. You’d have a level of comprehension somewhere between someone who really read the book and someone who just lied and said “Yea, I’ve read Moby dick,” but you could still claim you read it.

If you were reading something you actually need to comprehend, like I do at work all freaking day, I would strongly caution against it. There is just no science that supports the idea that a normal human can comprehend faster than we normally speak and read.

If you were reading something for pleasure, well you should do whatever the hell you want, because what you do for pleasure is up to you. And it could be kinda funny to read 50 Shades that way — just to see all that undressing and screwing happen at three times normal human speed. The lack of retention and comprehension would be an added bonus there, too.

Ultimately, if your goal is to have more than a vague recollection that you read something and the right to say (at least partially) truthfully “I’ve read that book,” Spritz doesn’t really bring anything worthwhile to the party. For better or worse, we talk and read and hear and comprehend at a rate of about 300 WPM, max. Anything above that either comes at a cost in comprehension or is, literally, too good to be true. If that’s even good. Since I like the little mind movies that happen when I read — and don’t mind the fact that they aren’t all in fast-forward, I’ll just call it bullshit.

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4 thoughts on “The Spritz or teh Shitz?

  1. Pingback: A Comment From and Response to “Jim Bob Spritz” | Michael J. McDonagh

  2. Oh, Evelyn Wood. I miss that old gal 😉 Meh, sounds like a whole lot of waste to me–but I’m guessing there are even more insane apps out there that have made their developers (creators?) $.

    Also, Red Bull in a bong? Good lord, I AM old.

  3. You haven’t tried it? It’s insaaaaane. 🙂

    Since I think we’re within a few years of each other, I take offense to your belief that you might be old.

  4. Pingback: Super Nerd Skills|How to read faster with the speed reading app Reasy

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