The Speed of Sound

Image representing the sound wave of an audio file.

On the recommendation of blog reader Margaret, I’ve been reading through Norman Doidge’s book, The Brain that Changes Itself. The book investigates neuroplasticity, the process by which the brain rewires itself and changes its physical structure in response to specific demands. There are a lot of interesting insights in there for people with sensory loss, and I’m already planning to write a longer post about it once I finish. 

In the meantime, I just wanted to share a short passage that caught my attention, and a few thoughts about it. Doidge writes:

I was at a dinner party with a friend, whom I shall call Emma; her writer husband, Theodore; and several other writers.

Emma is now in her forties. When she was twenty-three, a spontaneous genetic mutation led to an illness called retinitis pigmentosa that caused her retinal cells to die. Five years ago she became totally blind and began using a seeing-eye dog, Matty, a Labrador. Emma’s blindness has reorganized her brain and her life. A number of us who were at the dinner are interested in literature, but since she has gone blind, Emma has done more reading than any of us. A computer program from Kurzweil Educational Systems reads books aloud to her in a monotone that pauses for commas, stops for periods, and rises in pitch for questions. This computer voice is so rapid, I cannot make out a single word. But Emma has gradually learned to listen at a faster and faster pace, so she is now reading at about 340 words a minute and is marching through all the great classics. “I get into an author, and I read everything he has ever written, and then I move on to another.” She has read Dostoyevsky (her favorite), Gogol, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Dickens, Chesterton, Balzac, Hugo, Zola, Flaubert, Proust, Stendhal, and many others. Recently she read three Trollope novels in one day. She asked me how it might be possible for her to read so much more quickly than before she went blind. I theorized that her massive visual cortex, no longer processing sight, had been taken over for auditory processing.

Naturally this caught my eye, since I have RP and—like Emma—have taken to consuming most of my books in audible form. I too have increased the speed incrementally, and now listen at between 400 and 450 words per minute.

Anyone who has heard blind people use their phones knows this is pretty common. The advent of smartphone technology in the decade since this book came out has improved text-to-speech synthesis by leaps and bounds over the old Kurzweil machines. It is cheaper and more widely available, and the voices are more pleasant and natural-sounding, clearer and easier to understand at higher speeds.

Now that I’m used to it, I actually love using my phone to listen to books. For one thing, the high rate of speed keeps me engaged and focused. I know exactly how long it will take to read a book, because my reading app tells me, down to the second. And It makes note-taking easy—I just pause, highlight the text I want, and export all of my highlights once I’m done with the book. 

But there’s good news for those of you whose eyes still rule your brains: this is not some kind of blind superpower, and you can learn it too. I know, because my wife Kristin does it, and her vision is completely intact. She found herself getting impatient with the pace of audiobooks and podcasts and, since she knew I listened fast, she started increasing the speed. Now she listens to everything sped up anywhere from 1.5x to 2x normal speed, depending on what it is and what else she is doing at the time.

You can always learn new skills, even if large tracts of your cortical real estate haven’t been recently vacated. Much of the rest of Doidge’s book discusses how regions of the brain can be recruited for novel tasks, at the same time as they continue to do their old jobs. So it seems hiss explanation here is overly simplistic. Blindness had certainly prompted changes in Emma’s brain, but some—like fast-listening—could have happened even if she was sighted.

Brain function is not a zero-sum game, where gains in one domain can only happen at the expense of another. We haven’t found—or even gotten close to— the limits of the human potential to learn. We don’t know how many skills a person can master, or to what depth. The brain is glorious in its flexibility and ability to change, at any age and in any circumstances..

I’m excited to share more from this book and a few others I’ve read recently in the same vein, they all tend to show the benefits of that hard work I wrote about last week. The grueling work of learning to live again without sight not only allows us to lead happy and fulfilling lives. but could protect the health and longevity of our very brains.

Stay tuned!

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