I listen to a lot of podcasts and I listen to a lot of audiobooks. I’m not the reader of books on paper or screens that I once was and it’s mostly a matter of time. Audiobooks allow me to multitask, which I’m sure many people will say is not the way to experience a book.
If you don’t have time to sit and read a physical book, is listening to the audio version considered cheating? I have friends who react to my audiobook habit by saying “But you were an English teacher!” I (sadly) knew a number of English teachers who rarely read books. I might have once felt guilty about not reading the physical book, but I don’t feel any guilt now. And I do still read some books and magazines on paper or screens. I certainly tried to get ahold of the audiobook version of Stephen King’s 800+ page novel, 11/22/63, this summer. But I read it on paper. Quite slowly.
I am glad to find new evidence that suggests that, to our brains, reading and hearing a book might not be so different.
You might have overlooked the research when you were flipping through a copy of the Journal of Neuroscience at the doctor’s office because the title of the article is of that academic (yawn) variety: “The representation of semantic information across human cerebral cortex during listening versus reading is invariant to stimulus modality.”
But what the researchers did was analyze brain scans of nine participants while they read and listened to a series of episodes from “The Moth Radio Hour.”
In the summary of the research that I read (on a screen!), after analyzing how each word was processed in the the brain’s cortex, they created maps of the participants’ brains, noting the different areas helped interpret the meaning of each word. The brain scan data analysis showed that the stories stimulated the same cognitive and emotional areas, regardless of their medium.
The researchers published their first interactive map of a person’s brain in 2016. This colored diagram shows a brain divided into about 60,000 parts, called voxels. They analyzed the data in each voxel to determine which regions of the brain process certain kinds of words. It’s pretty amazing to think that one section responded to terms like “father,” “refused,” and “remarried” which they classified as “social words” because they describe dramatic events, people or time.
Listening and reading showed that words tend to activate the same brain regions with the same intensity. This was a result that surprised the researchers who expected (like my friends) that two different things were going on in my brain.
I have always thought, especially when I was teaching English, that people who struggle with reading either because they just don’t like to read or have dyslexia or some other real condition that makes reading really difficult can benefit from audiobooks. I wouldn’t have a problem with a student listening to the audiobook of an assigned text. It is certainly preferable to not reading it at all – and I know that happened with assigned reading.
So, listen to a book guilt-free!