A practical intelligence amplification hack that really works: how to use your phone's TTS engine to give your brain a boost

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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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:

  1. An earpiece in quiet environments, when I'm on the go or when I need to keep an ear open.
  2. 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.
- Socrates

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.


Jeremy Davis's picture

As you well know I have been using Moon+ Reader Pro (with Amy UK - I agree the most pleasant TTS voice I have come across) for a little while now. But this ramping up the speed thing is news to me!

As for the attention wandering point, I can certainly vouch for that. I thought initially that reading via TTS wasn't for me as I found that my mind wandered off and I had to go back and reread. I suspect that my habit of often having discussion heavy radio going in the background (which I mentally tune in and out of) was a factor as well. Alon suggested that I try reading along with the TTS which was a great suggestion and helped heaps. I have still often found that on the exercise bike and rowing machine at the gym are the places where it works best for me, but I sometimes come home from the gym feeling excited about the info I have gleamed while at the gym, and plug my phone into the aux input of my radio while I shower and have breakfast... A bluetooth headset sounds like a great idea (one I'll need to invest in...)

Back to the idea of ramping up the speed, it makes perfect sense but it never occurred to me (and you guys neglected to mention it previously!). Alon did ask in passing what speed I was using (as I think he thought it was taking me a long time to get through books... - which it has been). I'll need to start doing that now that I can finally maintain my attention enough to not need to reread sections!

Liraz Siri's picture

As you can probably tell I think using text-to-speech this way is the best thing since sliced bread. No scratch that, better!

I was sure we mentioned the ramping up the speed bit, but if not better late than never! This post has been trying to claw out of my brain for quite some time now. I don't think I properly explained the experience I've had over the last 4 years even to myself. Now it's way past my bed time. Couldn't peel myself off the computer until I finished.

Jeremy Davis's picture

But either way, I didn't get it (perhaps I ignored it as I was struggling just to pay attention in the early stages). Regardless I amped up the speed this morning and listened to a bit and it worked well. I think I'll sit where I am for a little bit then in a week or 2 ramp it up again! :)

Liraz Siri's picture

Thanks Sam. There's a 2.5 hour long debate I have queued up to watch. I'll try your trick. I wonder if anyone has created a Greasemonkey script that tweaks that Youtube interface to add that in there so you don't have to drop to the console. If not, could be a neat idea.

Liraz Siri's picture

If I don't practice for long enough, the speed at which I'm comfortable reading goes down significantly and I need to retrain. This is when I've found rereading to be most useful. I find I can reread comfortable at a significantly faster rate than when I'm reading a text for the first time and that the new speed then carries over to other texts.

I also find tend to reread books now more frequently in general. Sometimes if I like a book enough I'll reread it immediately. I did that with "the first fifteen lives of harry august" and enjoyed the book almost as much in the second reading as on the first. Usually though, I'll reread after a while has passed from the first reading. I find the experience of reading a book has almost as much to do with the perspective of the reader as the content of a book. If your perspective changes, the experience changes.

Liraz Siri's picture

Hi Sam,

I'm curious, how are you experimenting with Festival? What do you do with it?

If you're interested in TTS integration for computer use, you might want to check out Google's Chrome OS. It has amazing TTS integration. If nothing else it might give you a few ideas:


Also, I just saw your YouTube video. I didn't realize you could do that just with free software running on your phone. Pretty neat. If I could just turn the pages automatically I could use this to read dead tree books. There are a few on my reading list I haven't managed to get to that don't have ebook versions.

Regarding Audible, I think I'll give it another try soon. I didn't realize you could adjust the speech rate and I'm wondering how fast you can make it go. I don't mind paying for ebooks but I don't really like the idea of having to buy a book twice or chose between the visual and audio format. I'm waiting for that business model to die off, which might have happened sooner had Amazon not bought Audible and improved text to speech in the Kindles instead of removing it.

Oh, and Amazon now owns Ivona. I'm hoping they didn't buy it to kill it off and protect their Audible investment because the new voices are really fantastic. I wish we had a high quality FLOSS version of this. All of the open source voices I've tried kind of sucked in comparison.

Liraz Siri's picture

Amazon is big enough so that it doesn't get pushed around easily by anyone, including the publishing industry. Last I heard they were in a world war with the Hatchette book group over some other issues.

Also, the publishing industry didn't force them to remove TTS from the eInk Kindles. That was their decision. They also didn't provide TTS support on the first Kindle Fires, but then they brought it back with the Kindle Fire HDX.

What the publishing industry demanded was the right to disable TTS on books so that they could double dip and force people to pay multiple times for the same content. Kind of like the real reason the RIAA tried to outlaw software that performed backups of music CDs way back. In the end the publishers did get the ability to turn off TTS though to be frank I don't think they were within their legal rights to prevent people from using whatever method they wanted to read the books they own, but I'm guessing it's within their rights to try.

These days if I buy a book on the Kindle at it doesn't support TTS I return it in protest, even though it isn't too hard to get around that by removing the DRM.

Liraz Siri's picture

It's nice that button in the middle of the iPhone headphones works with Android. I think it triggers a generic play/pause media control function rather than being specific to Moon+ reader.

FWIW I don't have pause and play on my Plantronics in-ear earphone which does absolutely suck. I've looked everywhere for an in-ear bluetooth earphone with a pause/play media control function and haven't managed to find anything. I'd buy it in a heartbeat. Not sure why they don't make them.

Alon went as far as to buy a Pebble smartwatch just so he could pause/play his Bluetooth earphone without having to take out his phone. I'm waiting for the Moto 360 and that's my killer app for it too. Kind of silly. I'm also considering the Nod Bluetooth ring for that when it comes out and gets reviewed.

Also, as an alternative I've tried various bluetooth clips linked up to wired headphones. To be honest the Apple earbuds are the best headphones I've ever tried so with my clip-on bluetooth receiver I use that but if I'm already willing to put up with a more cumbersome setup than my earphone then the LG+ tone works better and is more comfortable than using wired headphones + clip-on.

Liraz Siri's picture

Mpow branded earphones have built-in media controls and that's what I mostly use now. I updated the article to reflect that.
OnePressTech's picture

Ah you youngsters...always looking to reinvent the wheel :-)

The visual system is far faster, at least in men, than the auditory system. I can speed-read an 80 page legal contract in about 15 minutes. Why is it faster? Because, as you have found with the TTS readers, you can only speed up reading all the words in a book so much. But what if you could selectively drop most of the common words in a text passage like: and, or, but, the, etc.

You would have speed reading.



Or, for the younger generation, you would have text messaging... U wud hav txt msgN (courtesy of http://transl8it.com/ ).

Don't get me wrong, I applaud the initiative and thoroughly enjoyed the intellectual joyride of this post. A fine intelligent discourse is like a fine wine (not whine of course!). But like all fine wines moderation is the key.

I speed read documents that are routine, I slow read documents that I want to enjoy, I speed-read then slow-read documents I want to retain and I don't listen to audio books at all.

Does your TTS technique work? Probably. But at what cost.

Exercise is about clearing the mind and reducing stress. My stress level went up just reading about the Turbo TTS education express :-)

And contrary to popular belief we don't multi-task we micro-switch.


So Turbo TTS to your heart's content on a stationary exercise bike but please don't do it while driving to work...at least not in my neighbourhood :-)

Just one man's two cents worth :-)

PS: I really enjoyed the 12.6 seconds it took to speed read your article :-)



Tim (Managing Director - OnePressTech)

Liraz Siri's picture

Hi Tim. I figured someone would bring up speed reading as a comparison. In theory it's similar but in practice there are a few important differences.

  1. It's easier to cheat when you try to speed read by just skipping stuff.

  2. Because it's easier to read faster by skipping rather than by actually speeding up your cognition, that's what your brain gets good at. Skipping the "less important" parts.

    Which isn't to say that you absolutely couldn't do this through the visual system. I imagine there might be a training method out there that if you follow diligently enough will produce similar effects. I think it would need a similar quality in which the computer controls the pace rather than you do. A line of scrolling text.

  3. Even if such a visual training method existed, you wouldn't be able to train while doing other things so in practice you would get a lot less training. I don't have time to read paper books.

  4. The speed of the visual system is somewhat neutralized by the complexity of visual input.

Regarding multi-tasking vs multi-switching. It depends what the tasks are. Automatic, effortless routines are handled by a different part of the brain called the basal ganglia. That's why they feel effortless. Because the part of your brain that feels effort isn't active. Decisions, attention and higher order cognition are handled by the prefrontal cortex. They are effortful.

So it's true that multitasking between different tasks that require higher order cognition is actually multi-switching. But you brain does a tremendous amount of true multi-tasking behind the scenes. It's a giant parallel machine. Only the parts of it involved in attention function serially. So you can walk and breathe at the same time while controlling your heart rate and speaking with a friend on the phone. What you can't truly multi-task is a task that requires attention or decision making.

You can drive safely while listening passively to a talk show on the radio. Talking to someone on the phone (or in the backseat) because that requires more higher order cognition. If road conditions become difficult complete silence is better because not all of driving is handled by your basal ganglia.

I track how long it takes me to do everything and I've measured this effect prominently in my own life. I can safely speed-listen while doing automatic routines and they don't take up any more of my time. But doing anything that isn't routine often takes much slower, and I make more mistakes, and enjoy the book less, which is one of the reasons I like having media controls on my bluetooth reader.

Liraz Siri's picture

FWIW, when I do occasionally try reading simultaneously with both my eyes and ears I find that a bit confusing and actually slows me down. I think this is because with the ebook reader I use (MoonReader) the content being read is not 100% in sync with the TTS engine. It just highlights the current paragraph so what you're reading and listening to is always a bit out of sync.

It would be interesting if there was an app that let you practicing reading with two inputs at the same time. I'd try that. On the other hand, then you do really need to dedicate 100% of your attention to material being read, which I usually don't have time for.

Liraz Siri's picture

I haven't tried it yet but from what I've read online Voice Dream Reader looks really sweet. I love that it's laser focused on the exact use case I've been promoting here. I was particularly impressed by this blog post on their site showing how a particular dyslexic reader is using Voice Reader to read at 650 WPM:


If it works well on Android, I'll be giving this a try.

OnePressTech's picture

Hi Liraz,

Always fun to debate with you. You're very clever and very ernest. On this topic, though, I will continue to wave the counter-point flag...if for no other reason than for the fun of it :-)

Your response is an interestingly defensive reaction. I had hoped for a more substantive counter.  You are usually more thoughful. In this case your responses did not appear to actually seriously consider that the turbo TTS approach may have some flaws. You seem to be unnaturally quick to reject a contrary view on a topic you are clearly "sold"on (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scotoma ).

Let me review your response:

1) You equate speed reading with skipping content and label it "cheating". Isn't the point of the exercise to extract the maximum value in the shortest time? You can speed up audible playback of "is', "was", "has", "is", "the", and a million other filler words to your heart's content but I'll still get more out of a document faster than you by "skipping" all those words. You also failed to recognise the brain's ability to yield value through contextual adjacency of visual material. Have a read through some of the PhD papers on voice and speech recognition and you will realise just how much we comprehend through context. When you listen to a document your brain receives the information serially. When you read it your visual system includes other spacial cues in reaching conclusions. The brain's visual ability to interpolate information between adjacent information is the basis for interlaced television. The brain's inability to comprehend and retain long numeric strings audibly is why a phone number is broken into sub strings (http://www.youramazingbrain.org/yourmemory/digitspan.htm ).

2) You did not appear to have a look at the links I provided which included a more detailed description of speed reading as more than "skipping content" and a link to speed reading software exactly as you hypothesised in your response as being potentially useful if it existed! I can only assume that you TTS'd the forum response and the links got dropped :-) By the way, in a turbo TTS session how does the audio playback handle embedded article link traversal! I know if speed reading a compelling link I will  follow it and speed-read the referenced content. In a turbo TTS playback are the links read out loud (yawn) or dropped (ouch).

3) You chose not to respond to my observation that doing multiple things at the same time is not additive. Doing two tasks simultaneously detracts from both. I doubt you will find many olympic weight lifters listening to a speeded up audio playback of Tolstoy's War & Peace while training for the olympics and then writing an under-grad thesis on the impact of a Napoleonic era on Tsarist society!

I'll give you audio playback while jogging on the treadmill...but that's as far as I'll go :-)




Tim (Managing Director - OnePressTech)

Liraz Siri's picture

You're right. The website sends me notifications of comments. I was speed reading (visually) through them and then speed writing a response from my email client, where the links don't work. So I haven't taken a look at your links yet and speed writing reduces my usual thoughtfulness. It's a trade off. You caught me! I have flagged your links to read later in Pocket though.

Maybe I did come off as a bit more defensive than I meant. Committing to anything in public makes it harder to see a balanced point of view, though I still try. To be fair I think I still do the bulk of my reading visually since that's my main mode of interaction with the computer and for doing research.

The part that's really exciting isn't using this as a substitute for visual reading but as a supplement. I was quite the book worm as a kid but at some point I had to give that up due to lack of time. My dedicated book reading dropped way way down. I still read and wrote a lot thanks to my computer use but that wasn't the same as sitting down with a good book. With this technique I now have at least a couple of hours every day (more on the weekend when I workout) where I can do some genuine reading. I'm rereading Lord of the Rings now on my meal breaks.

OnePressTech's picture

There's the Liraz I know :-)

So an interesting conclusion to this post-a-thon might be a suggestion on when to use which technique.

My suggestion:

1) Speed read documents that are routine or have lots of linked referencial material

2) Slow read documents that you want to enjoy

3) Speed-read then slow-read documents you want to retain (1st read for context, 2nd read for detail)

4) Audio playback when your eyes are otherwise occupied (and not while driving heavy machinery)

Based on your extensive investment in approach #4, when have you found the technique useful other than on the treadmill?


Tim (Managing Director - OnePressTech)

Liraz Siri's picture

Regarding point 2 - "slowly reading documents you want to enjoy" I'd like to stress that once you brain adapts even the fastest speed supported by today's TTS engines doesn't feel uncomfortable, or maniacally fast. It's counterintuitive at first but once you get used to it it doesn't feel like you are holding on for your life. It's enjoyable. The words just pop into your head. Stretching a bit beyond that speed is a bit uncomfortable though but that's only until you adjust. Just hang in there. I admit if I actually try to listen to the sound (rather than the meaning) buzzing out of my earphone it can sound a bit like a fax transmission.

Regarding where speed audio listening is most useful, the treadmill is actually an additional challenge for me because I push myself pretty hard and the mental effort required to sustain that competes with the mental effort of listening. So I still take it down a notch. All my other "effortless" routines don't require me to do that. FWIW, exerting effort / will power does require the prefrontal cortex to get involved so perhaps that's the reason. It has gradually gotten easier though. I think when you train your brain like this you build mental reserves.

Note that once you reach the top speed using this technique is a much more practical way to regularly reread the same texts as often as you'd like. This past week I've been revisiting books I haven't read a while and I've gotten through the Power of habit, Jurrasic Park, The Selfish Gene, and 2001 Space Odyssey. I had some errands yesterday and 2001 was a mid-day adventure. I think it took about as long as watching the movie.

OnePressTech's picture

Hi Liraz,

I'm trying to give this idea a fair go but you're still evangelising and not putting meat on the bone. The only time I could even imagine using this technique would be on the treadmill but you have just confessed that you can't do it on the tradmill because it impacts your concentration! I certainly wouldn't want to be trying this out while chopping up the onions for dinner (ouch)! Help me out here.

So when DO you use this technique if not on the treadmill, chopping onions, or driving to work. Not sure what's left.

Regarding using turbo TTS for a good book read for enjoyment you can count me out. It would be like chugging a fine glass of wine. You can do it but why would you :-)

I leave you with a link in line with the theme of this post...30 second versions of most blockbuster movies...done with animated bunnies, of course. The creators of the website observed that all blockbuster movies are sold on the basis of a 30 second treatise...so why not just make a 30 second movie!


For those with loftier tastes I leave you with a link to a site dedicated to stories that are exactly six words long (inspired by an Ernest Hemingway challenge in a bar after too much to drink...he did win the bet though).


For those of you reading this using a turbo TTS, there were some links attached...they were funny...sorry you missed them :-)



Tim (Managing Director - OnePressTech)

Liraz Siri's picture

Hi Tim,

Sorry you misunderstood me I actually do use this on the treadmill. I just lower the speech rate by about 20%. That speed is fine for me because I've gotten used to even higher speeds but it's still much too fast if you aren't used to it.

Like the article mentions, I also use this with any activity that doesn't require a lot of thoughfulness: preparing and eating meals, doing my laundry, cleaning, going to the post office, commuting, etc. When the amount of cognitive effort of the other activity I am performing in parallel varies I will prefer to use the bluetooth headset with media controls so I can stop and start playback without having to fumble for my phone.I

Regarding the strain and enjoyment here's an analogy of how I've found this to work. If you're used to lifting weights and you go into the gym after a long day of work you may decide to exercise a bit less intensely. But your performance is still much higher than someone who doesn't train at all because you've built reserves. Then you go to the supermarket and you have to lift a few bags and because you've built up more strength those bags don't seem as heavy as they used to.

I am evangelizing passionately for greater wider use of this technology because I've personally found it so incredibly useful that I can't believe not everyone is using this. I feel like the person that discovers that lifting weights on a high protein diet builds physical strength in a world where nobody seems to have realized that.

I can understand why you wouldn't want to read some books using this method if you are only reading for enjoyment. But if you do gradually ramp up the speed then you'll find that cognitive strain disappears entirely. For extra enjoyment on that special text you can then ramp down the speed so instead of a run it feels more like a stroll. After ramping up the speed in which you can run, the speed at which you will be comfortable strolling will be much higher than when you began. In that sense it's not a perfect analogy because running doesn't actually improve how fast you can comfortably walk. But training your brain like I suggest actually does do that.

You just have to chuck out your preconceived notions of what it will feel like to be reading at that speed a year or two down the road. It's kind of hard to imagine perception changing but I assure you it does.

Anyhow, this might not be for everyone. To each his own I guess. But I do recommend you try it.

Cheers, Liraz

fabvlvs's picture

I've been doing this just as a form of  entertainment while driving and in transit.  I have always had real problems with noisy envionments, so it is really good to hear that this activity constitutes something like a therapy.

Is anyone else astonished at the apparent lack of pure voice controls for web navigation?

OnePressTech's picture

I worked with the application of voice recognition with leading voice recognition teams at Nortel labs and Telstra labs over the years and voice recognition is harder than it looks.

Without 100% success rate with all voice types and accents a voice recognition interface does not gain acceptance by consumers. What do you do if the software can't recognise you! You can use the mouse / keyboard as backup but now you have two interfaces to support and an audience untrained in the non-voice interface.

To achieve 100% success under these circumstances requires a limited vocuabulary within a pre-defined context. Usually "Yes", "No", "City Name", for taxi-centric voice recgnition as an example.

Web browsing is a generic exercise so you would need an unlimited vocabulary which is possible,but not with 100% accuracy.

As an example, I have voice recognition on my Samsung S4. If I yell at it in the car loud enough in handsfree mode it will recognise my desire to call a friend after a few attempts but in some cases only after I mispronounce the friend's name in a fashion that the computer understands. I have two friend's with similar names pronounced differently. When pronounced correctly the computer hears only one of the two names even though the pronunciation is different. I have to mispronounce one name to get it recognised. To figure out the correct mis-pronuncuation for success required hit & miss experimentation.

Saying yes / no to the Samsung S4 works pretty accurately.



Tim (Managing Director - OnePressTech)

Liraz Siri's picture

Even really good voice recognition like Nuance's Dragon Naturally speaking. There's a light version of that for the phone called Swype which I use but it doesn't support the full range of commands which makes the inevitable mistakes much harder to deal with. If it misidentifies text you can't go back and delete that like you can with the PC version of the software.

So I've found dictation to be only useful if I speak clearly and refrain from using "uncommen" words. So in effect instead of the dictation software adapting to me I have to adapt to it.

Unfortunately, highly accurate speech recognition is difficult even for humans and requires something resembling higher order cognition to filter out unlikely combinations. In other words, this will get better but it won't get as good as human voice recognition until software can actually comprehend meaning.. There is too much ambiguity in speech for the statistical models to work very well. You just don't notice it because your brain usually filters that out.

Incidentally gradually ramping up the speech rate of your text to speech engine forces your brain's voice recognition function to speed up, and since that depends on higher order cognition, that too.

fabvlvs's picture

>To achieve 100% success under these circumstances requires a limited vocuabulary within a pre-defined context.


I think internet browsing for something to read/listen-to can be approached as one well suited to such a scenario.  The only delecate point is the search term, which can be confirmed with a "yes" or "no" and repeated as many times as it takes, or until the user usues another search term.

How might this look in practive.  You can imagine many ways.  Here's one off the top of my head:

  1. User activates system with predefined activation term.
  2. User speeks the designated term to initiate an internet search
  3. System prompts user for search term.
  4. User speeks search term.
  5. System reads back encoded search term.
  6. If user does not confirm go to 3, else user confirms go to 7
  7. User is prompted to indicate preferred result by speaking a predefined preference indication term ("click"?) during or immediately follwing the reading of a result.
  8. System begins reading results
  9. User indicates preffered result
  10. System confirms 
  11. If user confirms then go to 12, else read the result immediately preceeding and go to 11.
  12. system loads url current (last read) link
  13. system reads links and text until user speaks predefined prefrence indication term ("click"?); go to 14.  Links can be read in a special tone.  If user speaks no term, system will continue reading until all content has been read.
  14. System confirms by reading current (last read) link text.  If user confirms go to 11 else system reads link immediately preceeding current link.  If user still does not confirm system reads link immediately after current link.  At any time user can speek predefined term to start-over, reverse direction, speed up, slow sown.


Liraz Siri's picture

I really like the idea of hands free, eye free web surfing. I think this could be super useful especially once you get used to using text to speech instead of a screen.

The closest I can get to this right now is pressing the button on my Bluetooth headset to invoke Google Now and asking it really basic questions like what's the time or what is the weather is going to be like today. So far I've only done that if I wake up in the middle of the night and don't want to disturb my circadian rhythm by exposing my eyes to an lcd.

I love audio interfaces. As soon as they work better I think they'd be useful in many situations. Not just driving, which might be a tad dangerous if you have to do too much interacting, but also for the handicapped/disabled. For healthy folks this would make for a great on the go interface that doesn't require you to have anything more than an earphone on your head. It would also work better under low power conditions because screens use a tremendous amount of power, radiating light the way they do in all directions.

Regarding the implementation specifics you proposed, it sounds like a good start for a UX design. Once we actually give this a go more details will become evident and we can refine and optimize.

fabvlvs's picture

Keeping my mind from wandering into alternate universes while driving is already a losing task.  This is of course to say nothing of the impossibility of focussing on the road when it counts most; while driving through a place like Hollywood, where distracting drivers is a multi-billion dollar industry, and where many people are all to happy to distract drivers for free by the way they dress (or fail to dress).  Besibes those distractions, honestly, nothing gets me into more danger than my own rage.  This is a major problem in places like Los Angeles, where there really has not been anything like an alternative since mass transit was dismantled last century, so people who have no business driving have no choice but to drive anyway.  Hopefully self-driving cars will come soon (as a side note; it occurs to me that self-driving cars may not even need to stop at intersections if their paths and dimensions are all integrated and calculated in real time).

 If vocal navigating through chomsky.info can calm me down, I'll probably mitigate some of the life-shortening stress I'm under, and some lives might even be spared :)


But yeah, for now, I'll just keep taking the last few minutes at work looking for a nice long un-paginated article, or a speech ir debate on youtube.

Liraz Siri's picture

If you're looking for lots of high quality, free reading material check out 18-19th century literature. Some of the victorian-era stuff that is still famous from that time is really good and still surprisingly relevant. Times have changed but human nature has not. Dumas, Hugo, Doystovsky, Tolstoy, Conan Doyle. I occasionally enjoyed going back even farther to English translations of Latin/greek texts like "The histories".

One of the many reasons I'm excited about this is I get bored easily and when I get bored or otherwise understimulated I get stressed out and start fabricating alternate universes on the go. So somewhat paradoxically listening to a good yarn at a stimulating speed actually helps calms me down during activities which are not in of themselves very interesting. It's kind of like a cyber-Ritalin in that way.

I don't drive through Hollywood though. If I did, I'd probably want to pay attention. At least until I got used to it.

Liraz Siri's picture

I'd like better voice control for everything on my phone. On the other hand please keep in mind that your safety may suffer if you interact with your phone while driving, even if you only do it by voice, the same way driving safety suffers if you talk to people in the backseat. It's somewhat equivalent to driving drunk.

Liraz Siri's picture

Hi Jeff,

Thanks for coming forward and taking the trouble to share your experience which seems to corroborate some aspects of mine.

I've actually found it a bit harder to use this technique to ingest technical information. Maybe I'm just not trying hard enough, or are too used to doing this via my computer screen. I've subscribed to Hacker Monthly and downloaded all of the issues of ePub so I think I'll give that a try though.

You should really try this for pleasure. My reading is an eclectic mix of interests, some related to work but mostly I use this to read books I would otherwise read for pleasure (e.g., self education and entertainment).

I haven't become impatient (yet) with slow speakers myself, which is kind of funny because I am very impatient with the slow text to speech rate of Pocket. But that might have something to do with people in (my) real life not speaking to me in English, but in Hebrew. Maybe if I moved to an English speaking country I would get infuriated more often. "Speak faster my good man, I don't have all day!"

Liraz Siri's picture

Thanks for suggesting I take a look at utter. I'm going to try that and see how it compares with Swype's voice recognition, which is what I'm currently using. Swype is a Nuance product and Nuance is well known for the clever use of AI software. I'm pretty sure that Dragon's dictation engine uses learning neural networks in part. It works offline which is nice but since it doesn't truly understand what I'm saying it can't get as good as a person. You have to anticipate meaning to do that.

FWIW, maybe I have unusually eclectic interests but my experience with Google Voice search, which does use Google's servers hasn't really been all that great when I stray off the well beaten path. I've noticed it's very good at recognizing what I want when my interests lie within the safe confines of popular culture though. Questions about the US president in particular always seem to work.

fabvlvs's picture

This would be a great article for 2600 magazine.  Submit it!


Liraz Siri's picture

Great idea! I just shot them an email asking about it.

Liraz Siri's picture

I saw the same TED talk and it stuck with me since the full speed he played sounded a lot faster than the maximum speech rate supported by my phone, which bummed me out a bit beacuse I don't think you need to be blind to get used to that speed. You just need a lot of practice, which I am willing to put in. Last week I finished rereading Lord of the Rings in a bit less than the time it would have taken me to watch the movies.

Previously I had read it visually a decade or so ago during my military service and I remember it took me at least a few weeks to get through so that was several orders of magnitude faster and I enjoyed it more. The long walks and descriptions of nature aren't as boring when they go by more quickly!

Regarding the intonation, I know there is a pitch issue with some of the text to speech engines but I haven't noticed that with the Inona voice I'm using. It didn't sound like that when I started out but it actually sounds almost normal to me now.

Liraz Siri's picture

You're welcome! I'm really enjoying my new reading superpowers. The only snag is that I tend to exhaust reading material that interests me pretty quickly and that the more you read the more discriminating your reading tastes tend to get. I just imported a big batch of new out of copyright reading material that looked interesting into my reading list. There's a lot of surprisingly good english literature from before the 20th century. I recommend practicing on that.

Also, many thanks for the tips. I've been looking everywhere for a Bluetooth earphone with a media pause/play button. I just ordered one online and will report back whether I manage to get this to work with Moon Reader. I'm using a stock Nexus 5. Haven't even bothered to root it. If it doesn't work on that, that's something the Moon Reader developer should be able to fix. Especially given that it works in FBReader.

Added checking out Vouce Aloud Reader to my weekend todo list.

Liraz Siri's picture

FWIw, all the mpow bluetooth earphones have media control built in. I have a collection of them in both single ear and double ear versions. The MPOW shield is my favorite single ear device, and the MPOW Swift is my favorite double ear device (e.g., noisy environments like the gym).
Liraz Siri's picture

I still have a few Plantronics earpieces laying around. They had amazing battery life. Much better than the Mpow earpieces.

I've tried two versions of Mpow's "Sweatproof" sports headphones, "Mpow Swift" and "Mpow Cheetah". BackBeat seems to be more like the Cheetah, except it has better battery life and is 4 times more expensive on Amazon ($75 vs $19).

The Cheetah devices also supports rewinding (long press volume down). I prefer the Swift though because it seems to have better noise cancellation which is useful when I'm at my noisy gym. What I don't like about the Swift is that it doesn't stay on very well if it's not plugged into both ears. Cheetah has a more rigid, coiled interconnection.

Liraz Siri's picture

Interesting idea. I'm afraid if we did that we'd get more quantity of speech without necessarily getting more quality of speech.

I think you can speed up thought somewhat but most people would benefit from thinking more and saying less. At least until we figure out how to speed up rational thought dramatically. Which would be interesting because you'd probably also end up speeding up consciousness itself.

I get that effect sometimes when I meditate. Focus hard enough on the present and time seems to stretch out.

Liraz Siri's picture

I don't think that high-speed reading with TTS is fundamentally different than reading visually in respect to whether or not you can reflect at the same time. You can't read and reflect simultaneously either way. You can pause and reflect of course, or reflect afterwards and you can do that whether you are reading with your eyes or reading with your ears.

Fiction is not a problem at all once you get used to it. I just finished reading Neil Gaiman's collection of short stories (Fragile Things) at the top speed and I didn't feel like I had any trouble keeping up or enjoying it. It's like there's a movie in your head.

I checked and even at the highest narration speeds the pace at which the plot develops in real-time for fiction is roughly equivalent to the pace of a television program. In other words the book version of a 2 hour movie takes about 2 hours or so to read. Once you get used to the speed of the voice you don't really notice it that much. In your head it plays out at about the same speed.

Liraz Siri's picture

The latest versions of MoonReader seem to max out at about 550 WPM, (speed 50). That's a bit faster than the maximum speed (40) when I wrote the blog post a couple of years ago.

FWIW, it took me a few months to adjust to the new speed, but if you don't continue regular practice the speed at which you're comfortable reading quickly decays and you have to start over at a lower speed.

Case in point, a three week period in which I laser focused on a work project to the exclusion of everything else was enough to require me to lower my reading speed by about 20%.

Liraz Siri's picture

I also wanted to read my email with txt2speech, so I created a script for converting maildir formatted folders into an epub I could load up on my phone to read a batch of emails. You kind of need to be a Unix geek to use this though. Most people don't store their mail locally in the maildir format.


Also, a more general toolkit for converting text files to epub:


Liraz Siri's picture

I find text with a narrative to be much easier to read with TTS. If something is not meant to be read as a story (e.g., a technical reference book) it doesn't translate well to this medium.

If I didn't have an alternative (if I were blind) I'd probably try it anyway, and might write scripts to reformat the structuring. I'd also slow down the pace...

Liraz Siri's picture

Your hypothesis regarding repurposing of brain regions normally used for visual processing for even faster speed reading is interesting. I know there is some evidence to support that this sort of neural compensation does happen for other abilities.

Regarding practice, there probably is a correlation between how much you practice and how fast you can go. Also, I suspect beyond a point you'll start to see diminishing returns no matter how much you practice. Perhaps that point of diminishing returns varies from person to person and depending on whether you're blind or not.

On the other hand, the maximum speed MoonReader supports has only increased by about 20% since I wrote the original post, so I haven't had a chance to reach my personal limits. So far it's been my experience that any significant speed increase is uncomfortable at first. If you go beyond that you lose concentration and the motivation to continue practising. But if you stretch your limits by just the right amount you do get used to it eventually and can continue ramping up gradually until you hit the maximum speed. Maybe beyond a certain speed this is no longer true. Or the amount of practice necessary to ramp up / maintain reading also increases. I suspect it might but that hasn't been something I've yet verified for myself.

Liraz Siri's picture

I still use MoonReader it doesn't go that fast so I haven't found out if I can adjust to anything close to the speed of the screen reader in the audio you linked to. I can't make anything out in that audio either, but I can imagine adjusting to it after several years of gradual practice.

The latest versions of MoonReader max out at about 550 WPM...

Liraz Siri's picture

Not longer after writing the original post 2 years ago. He said MoonReader's maximum speed was actually a limitation of Android's TTS API. I haven't verified that myself though. He did bump it up last year from 40 to 50. Also I notice some apps such as VoiceAloud do seem to go even faster than MoonReader.
Liraz Siri's picture

I'm not sure if the free version of MoonReader has text-to-speech support. You might need MoonReader Pro. Or one of the free readers with TTS support mentioned in this comment thread.
Liraz Siri's picture

I was looking for an easy way to create my own ebooks for use with TTS and had some luck with txt2epub:


Later I wanted to try reading my email queue as an epub, so I wrote a script that filters out "unspeakable" things and converts maildir folder into readable text:


Liraz Siri's picture

I've read about 200 books in the last 2 years since I wrote that, so I'm averaging about 2 books per week, which is a bit less than I was averaging back then, which I attribute to a more active social life and a noisier gym.

MoonReader bumped up the maximum speed so I'm reading at 50 now, instead of 40. Occasionally fall off to a slower speed if I don't practice for too long.

And finally: using MPOW family of bluetooth headsets, which have built-in media control.

Liraz Siri's picture

Hi Daniel, thanks for sharing. It's awesome to know the post is still inspiring new readers to give this a try.

Tell your brother that if he makes an app that helps me reach "Absolute Neural Capacity": he will have at least one very happy, very loud customer.

With regards to the flavour of voices being used, I'm not sure it matters all that much once your brain gets used to it. There does seem to be an adjustment period for any change, even the same voice using different a different bluetooth device. Last year I spent a couple of months cranking up the speed of audio lectures on various subjects using the "Smart AudioBook Player" android app and after a while I reached the maximum acceleration speed and it was good.

Liraz Siri's picture

Hi Daniel, I always voice read with the screen turned off and that's never been an issue. Not sure why you're having that problem.

Regarding the aliens, that is a good story. A modern twist on ancient creator myths I suppose. I just finished reading Children of Time, which has a similar plot, except with the humans as the (flawed) godlike creators of another sentient species.

You might be interested in reading the Wikipedia article on the ten percent of the brain myth. I can't guarantee it's not part of the alien conspiracy to keep us in our place though. :)

FWIW, I have a feeling we'll all be getting smarter if we live long enough and then we get to find out what's that's like. Hopefully we'll find wisdom to temper our new powers, otherwise it could get messy.

Liraz Siri's picture

Hi Josh, did you ever get around to putting that post together on how you've integrated TTS into your workflow? I'd be interested in that.

Anyhow, thanks for pitching in!

Liraz Siri's picture

I'm curious at how you've integrated this into your workflow. Also, I hope you don't work at a job you hate to buy things you don't need Mr Durden.
Liraz Siri's picture

If I had a podcast (not a bad idea) I would definitely use this. FWIW, your site mentions support for free content. I would put all of that front and center so you don't even need to sign up to access it.
Liraz Siri's picture

I've run into the same problems with the forward/rewind button. Sometimes it would jump to the wrong place, other times the TTS engine would just stop working. I avoid using it now, but I wish it weren't so.

If I had to put one thing at the top of my wishlist for better TTS reading it would improved non-visual controls. I hate having to access my phone to go back when I miss something.

Liraz Siri's picture

We use so many anti spam defenses on the site I'm sometimes surprised we don't have more problems with non-spam false positives. Regardless a little bit does seem to get through no matter what we do, and it sometimes takes a little bit of time until it's noticed and squashed.


Add new comment