A practical intelligence amplification hack that really works: how to use your phone's TTS engine to give your brain a boostLiraz Siri - Fri, 2014/08/08 - 01:54 - 96 comments | Latest by Jason
The future is already here — it's just not very evenly distributed.
- William Gibson
Today I decided it was time I shared a unique, literally mind bending experience I've been having. If I could only get one idea out into the wider world this would be it. It's the best piece of technology advice I have to give.
Try it and it could change your life. Tell your friends and we might change the world. It's changed mine more than any other technological innovation since I got my first modem back in 1993 and discovered the Internet a year later.
A practical brain machine interface you can use right now
Back in the mid 1990s, when I was teenager I remember spending a lot of time speculating whether the technological singularity Vernor Vinge predicted would be driven by human IA (Intelligence Amplification), non-human AI (Artificial Intelligence) or both.
As a lifelong fan of the human race I preferred the IA route and dreamed of a day when we would have William Gibsonesque brain machine interfaces (e.g., ala Count Zero) that would augment our brains, make us smarter and let us gobble up all the knowledge we wanted at superhuman speed.
Well, it turns out you can use speech synthesis technology (AKA TTS or Text-to-Speech) to hack the equivalent of a USB port for your brain, right now. No neurosurgery required!
Hacking your brain in 3 unintuitive steps
It's a new twist on an old idea: in the 17th century an erudite Catholic bishop and French Academy member named Pierre Daniel Huet had a servant follow him around with a book to read aloud to him during meals and breaks and thus avoid lost time.
Swap out the servant for a smartphone that uses text-to-speech technology to whisper in your ear at superhuman speed, plus a brain that has been specially trained to make sense of it.
You do this in 3 steps:
Setup your phone to read ebooks out loud to you, using a good text to speech engine.
If you have an Android phone I recommend installing the Ivona text to speech engine with the Amy UK voice and setting that up to work with Moon+ Reader Pro, which has the best text to speech support of any of the apps I've tried.
Make a habit of having your phone read out loud to you while you are going through your daily routines.
I personally use text-to-speech to read when I commute, work out, clean up, do the laundry, cook my meals, and before I go to sleep (a great cure for insomnia).
It takes a bit of getting used to, but once you do, automatic thoughtless routines don't seem to interfere with the reading experience. It's like a movie is playing in your head while your body is on auto-pilot.
I started with wired headphones and then upgraded to a couple of wireless bluetooth devices which are much more practical at the gym, where I now do most of my reading.
Gradually ramp up the speech rate
You should be semi comfortable starting out at speed 10 on the Moon+ Reader range. Don't give up if you find your thoughts wander and lose track. That seems to happen to everyone at first. Stick with it. It gets easier.
Assuming you read regularly for a few hours each week you will notice you can very gradually increase the reading speed every couple of weeks or so. Expect a bit of discomfort. Stretching out of your comfort zone is supposed to be uncomfortable. The reading experience suffers at first but you may enjoy the extra stimulation. You do lose track more often and may need to go back and reread a few pages. If that happens too often, try and slow down a bit. You want to stay on the edge. Keep it up though and you will find your brain adapts. It's literally growing.
Deep in the language centers of your brain, neurons are sending axons out of their dendrites to form new connections, while glial cells improve the bandwidth of existing connections by insulating them with myelin sheathing. It's a miracle:
The more you read the faster you can ramp up the speed. This is training. It's kind of like lifting weights. There's a minimum amount of time you need to work out to maintain your current strength, and a bit beyond that you gradually improve. I imagine eventually there must be a wall of diminishing returns you slam into. But judging by how fast the blind crank up their text-to-spech interfaces, I don't think we're so close to it. I ran into the maximum speech rate supported by my phone within a few months. I hardly ever slow down anymore.
Again, you'll have a hard time believing this when you start, but stick with it and you will eventually be listening comfortably at the fastest rate your phone supports, which is currently 50 on the Moon+ Reader speech rate scale. I've checked and that's faster than I can read with my eyes without cheating. I get through a typical book in about 4-5 hours with excellent comprehension.
People with an untrained ear will have a hard time believing you can actually make sense of all that chirping and buzzing because to them it will sound like the human equivalent of a fax transmission. But do this for long enough and you will find yourself double checking that you really are reading at the maximum possible speed because it just sounds so much clearer and more understandable than when you started out.
If you're like me, you might eventually find yourself unsatisfied with the maximum reading speed. You start wishing you could ramp it up even higher. Just to see if you can hack your brain to handle it. There has to be an upper limit right? But what is it?
In my case, this led to many hours of fruitless googling trying to look up relevant research or even corroborating anecdotal reports. Nothing. I reached out to Seany, the Moon+ Reader developer to try and convince him to support faster rates but he said he couldn't make it go any faster because none of the Android text-to-speech engines he's tried support it. Higher speech rate values are just ignored. I'd like this to change, but it probably won't if I'm the only person that cares about this. Which is part of the reason for this blog post.
I bet once enough people realize what they're missing there will be a demand for making this go as fast as the human brain can be hacked to handle. Then we get to find out how fast that is. In a couple of decades or so we might have genuine neural interfaces, the kind that can teach us how to fly a helicopter or fight like a kung fu master. In the mean time that only exists in our cyber punk fantasies and this is the best we got. It's not a bad start.
So, to summarize follow these three steps and and about a year or so later you have the closest equivalent to a USB port into your brain that present day technology has to offer. They won't even need to open up your skull to install it. We just repurpose the human brain's legacy audio port and ramp up its bandwidth.
The art of bluetooth
Updated 2016-9-4: I alternate between using:
- An earpiece in quiet environments, when I'm on the go or when I need to keep an ear open.
- Noise cancelling bluetooth headphones in noisier environments such as the gym, flights.
Mpow: I started using this brand of bluetooth devices after someone in the comments section recommended them. They come in various flavours and sizes, but all have built-in media controls and similar firmware, which wasn't true for others brands I've tried. They're also inexpensive enough to throw out unceremoniously once I inevitably run out the embedded battery.
LG tone: My main complaint with the MPOW devices is that they don't offer the best audio recording so I sometimes need to switch to yet another bluetooth headset (an LG tone) if I'm making calls. If I had to go with just one bluetooth headset I'd compromise on the LG tone, which does it all, at the price of being cumbersome and a bit weird looking. Like my head has an antenna. Which I suppose it does.
Beware of the unintended consequences - there are side effects!
Beyond catching up on your reading and turning into an unsufferable know it all. Which was my initial motivation and a good one at that. I track the books I read with a custom field in Calibre, which is where I keep my book collection. According to my records I've read exactly 297 books this way since I started:
I'm not just reading more. I'm reading differently. For example, I now reread important books regularly to keep them fresh in mind and reinforce their influence. I find myself popping books like other people pop pills. There are books that help get me motivated, or work on my habits, or improve my judgement, or just chill out and take it all in stride. At least for a while. Also like a pill, the effect gradually wears off and you need another dose. Before I would almost never read a book twice. I barely had time to read it once. Now I can reread any book I like in two gym workouts, training my body and brain at the same time.
Getting back to the unexpected side effects, gradually ramping up the reading speed I'm comfortable with seems to have dramatically supercharged my brain's language centers. I'm not just reading more. I'm also writing faster and better. My communication and social skills have improved. I have more mental stamina. The intelligence amplification effect crosses boundaries.
The unexpected side effects
Better, faster, stronger writing skills
My theory for why doing this improves writing skills is that in order to understand speech you need a predictive model of what words are coming next. Each word primes a network of associations for the next word. So after Toy, you're much more likely to pick up Story than Gory, even if the sound is the same.
It works in both directions. The brain is efficient so it uses the same machinery to create new language structures that it does to understand language. Consequently, the boost to the mental machinery you get from training your mind to read quickly translates into improved writing skills as well.
Super cocktail party powers
Your brain has a special filtering system that allows you to tune out noise, and tune in your attention on a single voice. It's called the cocktail party effect.
I can do that better now. I have better comprehension of speech in noisier environments and I've verified this by testing my ability to understand synthesized speech in a variety of noise environments. I used to have to concentrate to understand my Kindle at the fast speech rate. If it was even slightly noisy I couldn't really do it without earphones. Noise like me crunching down on a salad. Or water pouring from the faucet. Even when it was quiet, the Kindle had to be close to me physically otherwise it was difficult to pick up what it was saying.
Training my brain to understand speech at faster rates than the Kindle supports has changed that. I can now understand the Kindle at the fastest speed without earphones from across the room while I go about my chores. Usually preparing breakfast and listening to my subscription of PhysOrg, my main source of news.
Boost to general intelligence
Language and thought are deeply intertwined. We think in the language we speak. We know there's a strong correlation between language aptitude and other types of non-verbal intelligence (e.g., musical talent). It's not necessarily a causal relationship but there is an influence.
Based on my personal experience I strongly suspect that using this training technique not only boosts verbal intelligence, but also spills over into enhanced general intelligence. I feel like a smarter, faster, more quick witted version of my former self.
I haven't gone as far as to try and test this rigorously so this is just based on my subjective experience. I might be fooling myself, or the perceived boost could be coming from something else entirely. I'm hoping someone does eventually test this carefully and I get to find out whether my hunch was right.
Why does this even work?
Training your brain with a text-to-speech engine creates a tight feedback loop that immediately rewards focus and comprehension while punishing failure much more than with visual reading. You can't dart your eyes back and reread that last sentence. You need to hang on. The relentless pace and control you can only get with synthetic speech are critical. Theoretically if everybody in your life started speaking slightly faster than you were comfortable and gradually ramped it up as you adjusted you would experience the same effect. But that's not an option.
So while at some level you're just listening to speech the seemingly undramatic quantitative difference eventually aggregates into a dramatic qualitative difference. Like the qualitative difference between casually going about your day and working out. You activate the same muscle groups but only the intensity, regularity and escalating challenge of a good training routine will change your body. Or your mind.
Calling all neuroscientists: fire up your MRIs!
I looked for objective research to back up my subjective experience but I couldn't find any so I don't think the kind of self-experimentation I've been putting myself through has been well studied yet.
I'm pretty confident there's nothing special about my particular brain and that anyone that goes through a similar process will achieve similar results.
Hopefully some of them will eventually be doing that under the watchful eyes of neuroscientists who can measure and quantify the effect. If I'm right and there is a practical, cheap, widely accessible brain training technique that can be proven to dramatically boosts a person's input/ouput bandwidth, verbal intelligence and possibly even general intelligence that could be a very big deal.
It might even be possible to use an MRI machine to take snapshots of a brain undergoing this process and show exactly what the changes look like at the neurological level the same way you can measure the growth in the brain regions responsible for navigation in London taxi drivers.
It started, ironically, with the last Kindle to support Text to Speech
I first realized heavy use of text-to-speech technology was having an interesting effect on my brain a few months into my first Kindle experience. This was 4 years ago and it was on a Kindle Keyboard device, now discontinued, which was ironically the last of Amazon's dedicated eInk readers to support speech synthesis. I initially preferred using the TTS over visual reading to avoid eye strain and to allow me to make better use of my time by reading while simultaneously doing other things.
The Kindle Keyboard only has 3 reading speeds. Slow, normal and fast. I tried reading at the fast speed but that was too hard. I had to back down to normal speed. At first, even that was a stretch, especially if I was trying to do anything else at the same time. But a couple of months later normal speed was easy and I started listening at the uncomfortable fast speed more and more often. A few months after that, I noticed the fast speed was no longer a challenge Now when I switched back to normal speed it seemed stupidly slow. Like the Kindle was mocking me.
At about the same time I also started noticing the first boost to my writing skills. I was reading a lot of 19th century literature and my writing actually became a bit more Victorian for a while. Thankfully, that mostly wore off as soon as I transitioned back to more modern literature. My social skills also seemed to improve at the same time.
I was so delighted by the experience and simultaneously horrified that Amazon had discontinued TTS from newer Kindle models that I started stocking up on Kindle Keyboards. Just in case. I have about 6 of them now. You'd think it would be in everybody's interest if people could read faster. I spend more on literature now than I do on any other form of media.
About a year into the experience it started bugging me that the Kindle's speech rate couldn't be made to go any faster. I started looking into hacking my Kindle which didn't lead to much beyond a root shell. I complained about this to Alon, who eventually helped me discover that I could do what I wanted on my Android phone, which is how I do most of my reading nowadays. It's also more convenient because I can use a device I already carry around that supports wireless audio. You should have seen me a few years ago trying to listen to the Kindle on a treadmill. Comical.
Patient zero: calling all early adopters!
Unfortunately, as far as Google goes I seem to be having a unique experience. I can't find any research papers, blog posts or forum discussions to back me up.
More worryingly, as far as I can tell I seem to be the only one that is super excited about this, aside from a handful of friends I've convinced to try this. I speculate that most of the non-visually impaired people who use text to speech use it as a poor man's audio book. They don't try to push the technology or themselves to the limits. They just take the path of least resistance and stick to whatever speed they're initially comfortable with. Maybe it takes a hacker's mindset to endure the initial discomfort and cognitive strain. I get it. Straying from the well beaten path usually doesn't lead anywhere. I hope I've convinced you that this time it does. Try it and see for yourself.
I don't know if this will ever catch on. I'm hoping it does bcause I believe it would have a hugely positive impact on society, even if only a small minority adopt it at first. The early adopters of new technologies are often already the most influential people in society, and getting them on board would pave the way for this to catch on in a big way. If I'm right and anyone can do this, imagine what would happen if everybody did. I don't think I'm the right person to make this go viral, but I'm hoping someone out there reading this is.
We're heading towards 2 billion smartphone users next year. That's a sizeable fraction of the world's population. They could all be doing this if they only knew the way. We should want them to. We need to encourage people to read and write more. There's no market for depth in any other form of mass media. Literature is the last refuge from the plague of superficiality and clickbait jamming our collective consciousness.
We don't need to invent anything new to have a more educated populace, less reality television, shallow news reporting and divisive politics that pander to the fearful and uneducated. We just need to make better use of what we already have. We can start with baby steps. Big things have small beginnings.
There is only one good, knowledge, and one evil, ignorance.
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