As we age, focusing the eyes properly becomes harder. Aging also causes a normal loss of peripheral vision, with the size of our visual field decreasing by approximately one to three degrees per decade of life. By the time you reach your 70s and 80s, you may have a peripheral visual field loss of 20 to 30 degrees. Is this reducing reading speed and is there a way to fight it?
There is an age for every activity
While we probably get wiser as we age, our other skills do not fare as well. When I was younger there were old memory masters. Today, competitive memory sports are run by Chinese teenagers with exceptional visual memory, not unlike Dota. Since speedreading is not equally competitive, there are reports of very fast readers in their 40s and 50s.
If your reading speed is below 2000, it does not really matter if your eyes age and you need glasses. All you need is to focus the text in the area where the peripheral vision is still working. However, at 10000 wpm I need to use my entire peripheral vision range. I am afraid that once I get over 50, this will become much harder.
Visual processing skills peak in teens and reduce sharply above 50. The audio processing skills peak around 50 and drop well after 70. This means that it is possible to use a different strategy once the eyes stop focusing.
Before we get to untreatable issues, there are several protocols that help with eye focusing.
First, we need to give our eyes some rest. The recommendation is about 5 min for every 20 min of reading. We need to close our eyes or look at infinitely far objects, or maybe perform eye massage or eye relaxation routine. The exact technique may vary based on our limitations.
Second, if we can work without glasses it is best to work without glasses. Even if this means slightly larger fonts and clear fonts with higher contrast. Regular glasses are rarely handling well peripheral vision. There are high-tech glasses with prisms that may help, but they are rare. How many really have SVAG? Side-Vision Awareness Glasses (SVAG) were designed to assist people suffering from side vision loss. It is an effective low-vision device that increases a patient’s viewing field, typically by 15 degrees.
Third, it is extremely important to switch from rapid saccading to visual flow as soon as possible. I know that training peripheral vision and eidetic memory is hard, but grasping a whole paragraph without moving one’s eyes is very good for one’s eyes. Rapid saccading is very tiresome.
Controlling the environment
I have not been reading from paper of kindle for several years by now. It is significantly more comfortable for me to control the text on a laptop or a bigger screen. Usually if possible I use 29 inch screen with 4K resolution. I am considering using 32 inch instead in the near future. For reading, I usually use the screen with pivot capability in portrait orientation.
With a large screen, the screen can be positioned in the far end of the computer table, so that the distance to the screen is relatively large and eye strain is reduced. It is known, that the eye strain is smaller for distant objects, but there are further criteria on the actual angles and viewing field. To be honest, the size of my working table is also not infinite.
Next, on a computer screen, I can configure the font to something relatively large and clear, like 14pt Arial font. With proper column orientation, I get about 12 words per line, which I can read without saccading.
Using eidetic memory
The easiest way not to focus eyes is simply to read from the memory, typically eidetic memory. Working with eidetic memory requires some training, and for most of us eidetic memory lasts just a few seconds, and still, it is very comfortable to read from the memory rather than focusing on the screen.
Using a combination of eidetic memory and peripheral vision, everything is slightly blurry. This blur is actually very comfortable with some fonts. In fact, when I actually focus on many fonts my eyes get tired from very sharp lines and high contrasts.
Visual memory is better with graphs and illustrations. I can actually read some graphs photographically and remember them after a year. I dare not apply this skill to text, as there are too many details. Eidetic memory is by definition a short-term memory. It helps for example navigate as we run in the woods when objects get occluded behind trees. After 2 seconds the afterimage disappears for me.
Clearly, I would not recommend the form of speedreading I practice to people with serious visual impairment. Even I in my late 40s need a large computer screen to read properly.
Instead, I may recommend audiobooks at x1.5 speed. This is about 400 words per minute. Some Braille readers also develop a speed of 400 words per minute, which is very good. It is not 10000 words per minute, but the average reading speed of printed text is around 200 words per minute. This is approximately the speed of an audiobook narrator from some rural area. Citidwellers speak faster, closer to 300 words per minute. The algorithms that speed up the audio are also limited, and quite often become unintelligible beyond 400 words per minute.
Audiobooks are also great since they do not stress the eyes and can be used pretty much anywhere, including a car. Practicing regular reading in a car is a bad idea, due to vertigo. It is quite hard to focus one’s eyes while tracking a moving object and compensating for the feeling of motion in the vestibular apparatus.
The true limitation
Quite honestly, the true limitation to the reading speed is not the ability to perceive information, but the ability to process this information critically. Analyzing information and creating relevant connections, be it logically or in mental structures, is a relatively slow process.
When I read I pause after each section to process what I just read, connecting the information with my prior knowledge and generating action items. After reading an article or several pages, I usually make some sort of marking in a reading diary. In some way, a similar protocol of pause/play can be applied to audiobooks when we are not driving.
Since this processing is the time-consuming part of reading, reading 400 words per minute is overall maybe twice slower than reading 10000 words per minute. We still need the time to process what we read.
The best focus is no focus
Be it with an audiobook, or reading slightly blurry text from eidetic memory, there is no real need to focus on the screen itself. And this is an important point. While the inability to focus may hinder the training process, once the vision is trained well, we may as well avoid glasses at least with large computer screens. In fact, I have friends with truly massive glasses who opt for very large screens and take off the damn glasses.
Relying on memory instead of reading
I know that as I age, my reading speed will soon drop. And yet this is not a big issue, as I have a lot of general knowledge organized in nice structures. I do not even have to read as much as I used to read a decade ago. Instead, I focus on adding small innovations to something I already know.
I do struggle to learn entirely new subjects from scratch, but fortunately, I do not have to do this often. Moreover, when I do learn a totally new subject, the reading speed itself is the least of my worries.
In fact, I rely on my longterm memory much more than I rely on my ability to acquire new information. Hence with time, I rely much more on speedwriting than speedreading. And when writing, the screen is used just for feedback.