Why 'Reading' Audiobooks Isn't a Shortcut: Listening vs. Reading, and Your Brain

Apr 24, 2015

Credit audiobooks rock/flickr

Have you ever told someone, "Hey, I read that book!" then continued with a guilty, "...well, I listened to the audio version." 

It's time to wash that guilt right out of your soul, because in this edition of Two Guys on Your Head, Dr. Art Markman and Dr. Bob Duke, talk about how our brains process information differently based on how we consume it.

When you read something, you are looking at symbols on a page, and your brain is busy filling in all the blanks. Like the sounds of the voices, the scene, the inflection, the deeper meaning, the plot, etc. When you're listening to something, a lot of those spaces are filled for you, and when you in turn watch something, even more things are put together for your brain. 

What does this mean? Basically, the memories you form differ based on the way you consume information. None are necessarily better or worse for your brain, they're just different experiences.

Markman even sited an experiment, conducted in his lab, which shows that when we hear proverbs, like "the squeaky wheel gets the grease," you're more likely to connect this to other proverbs that have the same deeper meaning. When you read that "squeaky wheel" proverb, you're more likely to be reminded of proverbs that have wheels in them; your brain picks out the literal elements.

Why? It turns out that because you can't go back and re-read, when you listen you are more likely to extract the deeper meaning from things quicker.

So read, listen, watch, touch...it's all working your brain in different and wonderful ways. There's no need to be ashamed that you listened to the audio version of War and Peace — plus, it's lighter anyway.