One for the Mythbusters: The Speed of Thought

This post is an effort to integrate what I am currently learning in a grad course on Interpersonal Communication with an undergrad course by the same title which I am currently teaching.
I have now taught at least a half-dozen sections of this college level Interpersonal Communication class. And I can say without any uncertainty that the most common communication weakness students acknowledge about themselves is in the area of listening. Self-reports range from things like “I could definitely learn to listen better” to confessions like “I know I am a terrible listener.”
I always empathize with these honest folks. I struggle in the same area.
In a lecture on listening, Dr. Gangel (one of the profs whose MP3 recordings I listen to for my course) avers that the average thinking/speaking ratio stands at approximately 4 to 1. That means that most people speak at a speed of about 125 words per minute, and most listeners can listen or think at a rate of about 500 words per minute.
Thus, it should be the case that most listeners have about 300 or 400 words of excess thinking time per minute.
This is one reason, says Gangel, that our minds can tend to wander while listening to others. But rather than zoning out, we should…
…anticipate where the speaker is going,
…mentally summarize what he/she has already said,
…evaluate to reach some preliminary judgments for response,
…consider the context and the speaker’s point of view, so that we interpret more rightly.
However, he cautions, all this must be done with patience and with interest in what the speaker is saying.

I think all of us do, or at least try to do most of these things already, but we just call it ‘concentrating on what someone is saying.’ I try to imagine practicing these skills as they are put forward here—practicing them enough actually to gain some level of proficiency. I try to imagine it, but I almost can’t. I can imagine only that I would be so focused on what I was trying to do skill-wise that I would do an even worse job of listening to the actual content of the other person’s message.
All of this seems very difficult. I am tempted to write to Mythbusters and challenge them to confirm or bust this theory. But how would they even go about it? Assuming that people actually thought in “words,” which they don’t—not purely, anyway—how could anyone actually count the number of words per minute? The only way I could see it happening would be to have a person mentally recite a passage of something they knew by heart, stop them at the 60 second mark, and ask them where they were in the recitation. But is that anything like the actual thoughts we have—especially during conversations?


3 thoughts on “One for the Mythbusters: The Speed of Thought

      • Haha, well you chose a very fascinating one! Jesus probably made us this way so we wouldn’t just say what we were thinking. Speech at the speed of thought… *shudder*

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