Bad Ideas

I Tried Listening to Podcasts at 3x and Broke My Brain

‘Podfasters’ listen to their favorite pods at 1.5x, even 2x speed. But how fast is too fast?

Steve Rousseau
Published in
6 min readJan 24, 2020
Illustration: Minet Kim

Welcome to Bad Ideas, a column in which we examine the practical limits of technology by considering the things you could do, and then investigating exactly why you shouldn’t. Because you can still learn from mistakes you’ll never make.

MMost of us are familiar with binge watching and speed reading, but there’s a relatively new mode of conspicuous consumption that’s emerged in recent years: podfasting. First profiled in 2017, podfasters love listening to podcasts so much that they’re speeding them up — 1.25x, 1.5x, and even 2x speed — in order to fit more into their day.

Podfasters often draw the ire of podcast creators, who object to listeners steamrolling over their carefully edited audio. Meanwhile, podfasters argue they’ve identified a “flaw” with the podcast as an information delivery medium: People speak out loud at an average of 150 words per minute, while our brains internally yammer along at 400 words per minute. If your goal is to upload the information contained in a single podcast episode into your brain then, it would seem, human speech is a bottleneck. Could you train yourself to listen to a podcast at 2.5x or even 3x?

As soon as the podfasting craze emerged, listeners pushed themselves to the limit — and apparently found one. Uri Hasson, director of Princeton’s Hasson Lab, a neuroscience lab that studies the brain’s response to natural life events, found that word recognition drops about 40% when audio is played back twice as fast. Raymond Pastore, an instructional technology professor whose research focuses on speeding up our aural comprehension, told The Ringer that 2x was the average human limit.

But the human body is capable of incredible feats. The sub-four-minute-mile was impossible, until Roger Bannister broke it — and now even high schoolers are running