How Dictation Benefits Cognitive Productivity

Whereas, in the past, the fruits of your ambulant mind dangled precariously on the dendritic branches of your memory organ, they can now be digitally harvested and processed. You can dictate while taking a stroll, running errands, jogging, working out, commuting, waiting for an event, or meditatively pacing in and around your home office. You can digitally capture your voice using a special-purpose recorder, a smartphone, or a computer. Nuance’s Dragon Dictate™ (Mac) and Dragon NaturallySpeaking™ (Windows) both do a great job of converting speech to text.

My main objective in this post is to consider some of the cognitive productivity benefits of dictation. If you have landed here looking for practical tips or want a bullet-point summary of this post, then scroll to the end.

Many lawyers, doctors and other professionals dictate memos and instructions to their secretaries. This allows their staff to work in parallel with them. If the digital audio-record is of sufficiently high quality, then their secretaries could (in principle) use MacScribe™ to perform the first pass of speech-to-text conversion. However, often the audio-record is not suitable for this. That calls for ‘double dictation’. I.e., their secretaries could listen to the tapes and themselves dictate to their computers using Nuance’s software. Unfortunately, the fingers of many professionals’ secretaries type out the full text of their boss’s recordings. That is an unfortunate waste of time (and therefore money) compared to using their voices and dictation software. Well, at least the professionals in question need not type their memos themselves. The more work we can offload to our secretaries and/or technology, the more we can focus on the constitutional problems of our domains of expertise.

Time savings

The raw speed-advantage of typing over dictating is significant. On a traditional keyboard, most people only type 20-30 words per minutes. Touch-screen typing is even worse. (You can easily time yourself if you’re curious.) Professional typists, in one study, tapped about 57 net words per minute (Salthouse & Saults, 1987). But the latter don’t need to do the creative part of the work, which obviously slows typing. In contrast, lecture speech is about 142 words per minute (Tauroza & Allison, 1990). This suggests significant potential productivity benefits for dictation, particularly given that good speech-to-text software on a fast computer can handle high burst rates.

The effective overall temporal benefits of dictation are difficult to quantify. Depending on your skills, you might make more or fewer errors typing than your software makes converting your speech-to-text. The types of errors produced by dictation software are different from those you make typing. (So, you’ll need to adapt your editing skills to this.) Moreover, for serious writing, as Venkatesh Rao recently noted, a lot of work goes into revision, as opposed to writing the first draft. (You can also use dictation for editing; but beware of Nuance’s Goldarn Rule—referred to as the “golden rule” in Nuance’s Doublespeak.) Still, speech-to-text software presents opportunities that are simply unavailable to those of us who can’t yet afford to be escorted by a secretary. It permits note-taking when even touch-typing is not an option. While you may not be able to quantify your gains, using dictation software can improve your written output by several orders of magnitude—once you get the hang of it.

Getting the hang of it takes a while but it can pay off

If you are like most people, neither dictating, handwriting nor typing, came naturally at first. You eventually learned to think deeply while writing by hand. Then, through years of practice you became increasingly competent at thinking while typing. (As I argue below, we sometimes nevertheless need to pry ourselves from our keyboards to make progress.) Yet only a small proportion of us have taken up dictation. The number will rise dramatically, given ubiquitous speech processing technology, such as Siri.

When you first take up dictation (if you haven’t already), you will find it strange. Why it is strange and difficult is fascinating but not something that has received sufficient attention from cognitive scientists. It is not principally that it is embarrassing to speak to a machine. We’ve all become accustomed to stranger things. The first time I took money out of a bank machine, I thanked it. The next few times, I actively suppressed the urge. If I start thanking automated tellers again, let my doctor know. Similarly, I was quite self-conscious about my first public cellular-conversation. Learning to use these technologies was more a matter of choice and habit than skill. Dictation is different. I suspect that it requires some deep neural and cognitive changes. I don’t know of any theory that explains these changes—I have some ideas but I won’t burden you with them.

Dictation is a skill that requires practice and that can pay off. To make this point, I can think of no better example than Sir Winston Churchill, one of my favourite cognitive productivity references. Churchill discovered the possibilities of dictation as a student at Harrow. In his autobiography, My Early Life: A Roving Commission, Winston Churchill wrote an amusing and telling anecdote of his days in the British equivalent of high school:

My Sixth-Form friend for his part was almost as much troubled by the English essays he had to write for the Headmaster as I was by these Latin cross-word puzzles. We agreed together that he should tell me my Latin translations and that I should do his essays. The arrangement worked admirably. The Latin master seemed quite satisfied with my work, and I had more time to myself in the mornings. On the other hand once a week or so I had to compose the essays of my Sixth-Form friend. I used to walk up and down the room dictating—just as I do now—and he sat in the corner and wrote it down in long-hand. For several months no difficulty arose; but once we were nearly caught out. One of these essays was thought to have merit. It was”sent up” to the Headmaster who summoned my friend, commended him on his work and proceeded to discuss the topic with him in a lively spirit. “I was interested in this point you make here. You might I think have gone even further. Tell me exactly what you had in your mind.” Mr. Welldon in spite of very chilling responses continued in this way for some time to the deep consternation of my confederate. However the Headmaster, not wishing to turn an occasion of praise into one of cavilling, finally let him go with the remark “You seem to be better at written than at oral work.” He came back to me like a man who has had a very narrow squeak, and I was most careful ever afterwards to keep to the beaten track in essay-writing.

Churchill employed secretaries to take dictation from him as soon as he could afford them. He continued to employ them throughout his entire life (often having a team of secretaries). Richard Langworth, co-chairman and editor of The Churchill Centre, told me that he has seen examples of letters dictated by Winston Churchill from the time the then future Prime Minister entered Parliament in 1901. Churchill published his last book in 1961 at age 86. Winston Churchill once quipped “I am feeling very fertile, I shall require two young women tonight” [for taking dictation.]

Wikipedia reports that Winston Churchill “wrote an estimated eight to ten million words in more than 40 books and thousands of newspaper and magazine articles.” This does not count his political memos and white papers, of which he was the most prolific writer. As a cabinet minister, when he felt his colleagues needed enlightenment, Churchill would even write white papers for other departments. Of course, volume and quality are not perfectly correlated. But one can rarely achieve expertise in any domain without commensurate involvement (think of the 10,000 hour rule). Winston Churchill was awarded a Nobel Prize in Literature (1953).

Think better on your feet

One incidental advantage of mobile dictation is that it can help train one to think on one’s feet. If you don’t have many opportunities to speak in public, then getting into the habit of dictating and expatiating on complex issues may be particularly beneficial for you. But even if you do have the advantage of teaching orally, presenting, or engaging in meetings to discuss interesting, important, and complex areas of knowledge, the principles of expertise and normal learning still apply: Experts need to keep practicing their craft. Verbally articulating one’s thoughts is different from vaguely entertaining and meditating upon them. I am not suggesting that we must always engage in verbal formulations of our ideas—Asquith chastised Churchill for ‘thinking with his mouth’. And dictation itself has a cost. Virtue lies in the mean, as Aristotle put it, between a vice of defect and a vice of excess.

Overcome fixation and counter-productive priming

This one’s a bit a technical; but I hope you’ll enjoy it.

An important benefit of dictating on-the-go is that it helps one overcome cognitive fixation. That is the failure to solve, reformulate or replace a problem because one neglects to survey or construct alternatives. One gets stuck in a miniature rut. Fixation is sometimes due to what I call “counter-productive priming”. We’ve all experienced beneficial cases of priming, where an environment, person or sensation reminds us of something. For example, a distinctive perfume can remind you of an old flame. You would tend to perform better at an exam taken in the same room as where you learned. If you memorized a list of words under water, you would more easily remember it there. In all these tried and true examples, stimuli trigger previous thoughts which help us use those thoughts. Priming is helpful to cognition—so long as the old thoughts are pertinent.

In counter-productive priming, the environment activates thoughts, ideas, memories and ways of thinking that lead to dead-ends. One needs to withdraw from nefarious cues. That’s when it is time for a walk or other change of scene, preferably somewhere that one hasn’t been unsuccessfully immersed in the same thought patterns. With the caveat that one can almost always find data to confirm one’s conjectures, I find it noteworthy, that Steve Jobs, one of the most creative technology leaders of our time, would go for a walk by himself or with others, in order to solve troubling problems. The social aspect of his behavior has been emphasized by others. But I draw your attention to its cognitive dimensions.

Cognitive psychologists have named a related phenomenon “incubation”. With incubation, the passage of time during which one is not consciously focused on solving the problem is thought to be critical to solving it. Cognitive psychologists do not agree about the mechanism—or the importance—of incubation. In some cases, sleep plays a vital role. Here, they often speak of “memory consolidation”. In other cases, simply resting one’s mind seems to do the trick. Some researchers have found that a walk in a peaceful park is a better incubator than one in a busy city. In some cases, watching a large picture of a calm natural scene seems to be more helpful than watching a busy scene. Attention restoration theory, which like so much in psychology dates at least as far back as William James, suggests an important role for cognitive rest. There are other explanations of incubation.

Insightful problem-solving is notoriously difficult to study; however, in the clearest cases of incubation, counter-productive priming seems to be at work. A change of scene may often be as important as the passage of time. This first occurred to me in the context of a Cognitive Psychology course I took from Dr. Alain Desrochers in 1989 (or maybe it was his idea!). I have been using this particular gem ever since. So, you can free yourself of the ideas that your office is bouncing back at you, go for a walk, and use a dictation device to capture your new and creative solutions.

Free your imagination (and brain) from your computer monitor and keyboard

I also believe that an advantage of mobile dictation is that one can greatly attenuate visual input. This can free your imagination. We all know that our attentional capacity is significantly limited —and cognitive psychologists have studied this inside-out. Although you may not be aware of it, while writing, large parts of your brain (and mind) are consumed by something irrelevant to deep thinking, namely typing and editing text. It is difficult to use visual imagination skills, and analogical reasoning skills, when your brain is preoccupied with typing. In contrast, while dictating and/or walking, you can engage your imagination and engage in analogical reasoning and mental simulations. The principles on which my proposal is based are well researched. Cognitive psychologists ought to perform lengthy empirical studies of technology-assisted mobile cognition.

And so I claim that mobile dictation can enhance your cognitive productivity. If you’re stuck in a rut on an important problem, you can go for a walk or run an errand with your dictaphone in hand, and capture whatever insights you may produce. Or you can switch to another task; but keep your dictaphone with you on the go, so as to capture relevant insights.  Creative people tend to produce more useful ideas than their less creative peers; but they also produce more unworkable ones. As you process your voice memos, you might find yourself discarding random thoughts.

To this end, I find it useful to keep a list of cognitive tasks to accomplish when I’m on the go. I often create a new task in OmniFocus, for this purpose. (OmniFocus is a ‘get things done’ application manufactured by OmniGroup.) I actually set the context to mobile cognition. When I’m on the go, I can choose a topic from my ‘mobile cognition’ context. That way, I don’t always process the latest problem that I happen to be grappling with. I sometimes set the background of my iPhone to be a screenshot of a few choice cognitive tasks, so that I don’t have to even launch OmniFocus: a click of the On/Off button and I am back to knowledge work.

Practical tips

2013-06-12. I’ve updated this section because Siri is now much more useful at dictation.

I now simply tell Siri to “create a new note” and dictate the note. For reminders, I tell Siri to “set a reminder for” (some specific time) “to” (do some specific thing). Siri then asks for a confirmation. Through iCloud®, these notes and reminders are synced to my other devices so that I can process them.

I find Siri’s dictation to be significantly inferior to Dragon Dictate on Mac. However, because I still rely on Excel®, and Microsoft® refuses to upgrade Excel to use Cocoa rather than the old Carbon, I can’t use Dragon Dictate. Excel hangs when Dragon Dictate’s microphone is on. (That is yet another reason to switch to LibreOffice and Apple’s Numbers® spreadsheets.)

To conclude

So, in this post I have proposed the following cognitive benefits of dictation. I believe they apply whether a human or a non-human machine does the transcription.

  • Increased written output rates (i.e., words per minute).
  • Improved ability to think on your feet.
  • Greater potential for insight (through decreased cognitive fixation and counter-productive priming)
  • Greater ability to use imagery and analogical reasoning (eyes, attention, visual cortex, etc., are not attending to hands and screen).

I am not suggesting that dictating is a silver bullet. Cognitive psychologists need to test the conjectural aspects of my proposals. And you will ultimately decide for yourself. You might for example use the trick “think of the opposite”, and consider the drawbacks to dictation. For example, consider one’s privacy and one’s neighbours’ rights to silence.  Obviously, the benefits of dictating depend on a number of other factors. In my upcoming post on using dictation, I will deal with many of the limitations of speech-to-text technology. In addition to this blog, I also provide cognitive productivity workshops and coaching services.

Luc P. Beaudoin

PS, I dictated almost all of this nearly 2,800-word post using DragonDictate.
PPS, Although this may sound implausible, one day thought-controlled dictation might replace auditory speech processing for most dictation applications (this would address privacy and noise-pollution issues). Ontario’s InteraXon is engaged in thought-controlled computing.


Churchill, W. S. (1930). A roving commission: my early life (382 p.).
Salthouse, T., & Saults, J. S. (1987). Multiple spans in transcription typing. The Journal of applied psychology, 72(2), 187-96.
Tauroza, S., & Allison, D. (1990). Speech Rates in British English, 11(1).

2013-06-12. I finally updated this post to reflect my use of Siri® for mobile dictation.

Published by

Luc P. Beaudoin

Head of CogZest. Author of Cognitive Productivity books. Co-founder of CogSci Apps Corp. Adjunct Professor of Education, Simon Fraser University. Why, Where, and What I Write. See About Me for more information.

5 thoughts on “How Dictation Benefits Cognitive Productivity”

  1. I liked your insert about incubation. I personally have experience these many times during my career and have solved my biggest problems that way. My typical pattern would involve being sucked into a significantly complex algorithm (multiple resistivity levels and many inter-dependent classes interacting with each others), and at a given point of implementation, I’d hit a snag… I’d work on the obstacle ahead of myself to death to overcome it. Then, tired by my work that does not produce any results, I’d decide to take a break (aka take a shower).

    In my shower, I would make some conscious effort to think of another topic, because I know that my complex problem has received all required conscious attention to attain a resolution. At one point, out of the blue, a simple solution would surface in my mind. Without brushing my teeth I’d jump back on the computer and work for another 4-5 hours to destroy most of what I did for the past day or two and implement the simple solution in a single stream.

    The key point about incubation relates to some sort of conscious sleep. That is, even without sleeping, a given area of your brain is being solicited. While it is solicited, it cannot adapt its neurological organization since it is being used. As you shift your thoughts elsewhere, the originally solicited cognitive area has to engage in an immediate clean-up task (comparable to what happens during sleep) where neurological adaptations occur. This could take as little as 5 minutes (which could further confirm the benefit of power-naps).

    Upon the next period where there will be solicitation of the cognitive area that first created troubles, such neurological organization will have been adapted and the provision of new thoughts will follow new paths and produce a new set of solutions that is always simpler, and most of the time right.

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