As Far As Our Brains Are Concerned, An Audiobook Is As Good As The Real Thing

by Kristen Mae
Originally Published: 
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A few weeks ago while eating lunch with my 14-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter, we somehow got into a discussion about Egyptian pharaohs. I recounted the story of Hatsepshut, an ancient Egyptian female pharaoh, whom I learned about via the book “When Women Ruled the World.” I told the kids about how Hatsepshut had taken on the kingship and ruled on behalf of her very young stepson, not merely as queen regent, but as king. She’d even had massive statues erected depicting herself as a man, with a bare chest and the traditional long, narrow pharaoh’s beard. Historians believe Hatsepshut’s masculine depictions of herself were likely meant to reassure her subjects of her legitimacy.

I kept telling my kids I’d read this book. Even now, I have a memory of looking down at pages with words printed on them. But that’s not true — I never read this book. I listened to it. During a long road trip last fall, I binged the entire audiobook. Not only did I remember the details probably better than if I’d read them, but I’d created these false memories of having sat and read a physical book.

It’s not uncommon for me to mix up my formats when I remember books I’ve consumed. I’ve gone to my bookshelf in search of a book I’d like to lend to a friend, only to finally realize that I don’t own a physical copy of the book, because I listened to the audiobook. My brain doesn’t seem to distinguish between the two.

Victoria Fedden teaches college-level composition and literature in Florida. She says people are often “horrified” when she tells them she encourages her students to listen to their assignments or use audio materials to supplement their learning. “People who aren’t teachers can get really rigid about what they think education should be like,” she tells Scary Mommy. “They’ll say we’re dumbing it down.”

I’ve encountered this attitude, too. Somehow listening to a book isn’t viewed as requiring the same level of intellectual acumen as sitting down to stare at physical pages in order to absorb the words. I call people who think this way “visual reading purists.”

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But Fedden assures her students that listening to their reading assignments and enjoying audiobooks is a valid form of reading. “Reading doesn’t have to mean paper,” she says. “For my students, who are teens and adults, audiobooks can make education more accessible in a lot of ways. My students are busy. They drive and work and maintain busy schedules. Audiobooks allow them to get their reading homework done while commuting or sometimes while working.”

She also pointed out that students at all levels can struggle with reading comprehension, or are primarily audial learners. Listening to a book can help them pick up on things like tone and inflection through the voice of the narrator. “One thing I suggest is for students to listen to an audiobook, or listen to a YouTube video of someone reading [an assigned] piece out loud while also following along with a print or ebook version of the text.”

Fedden may have picked up on this method of instruction via her years of experience, but her instincts align with the science. In a study published in 2019 in the Journal of Neuroscience, scientists from the Gallant Lab at UC Berkeley performed an experiment to see if brains would react differently to visual (reading) versus auditory (listening) input.

While nine study participants read and listened to stories from the podcast, “The Moth Radio Hour,” researchers took detailed scans of their brains. They studied participants’ cortexes as they read or listened to each word, mapping their brain’s reactions as they attributed meaning to the words they took in.

Using the scans, researchers generated an interactive rainbow-colored map that displays images of the participants’ brains divided up into roughly 60,000 parts, which they call “voxels.”

Scientists were actually looking for specific types of words, ones that typically have more emotional weight, like “remarried” or “refused.” And what they found is that the participants’ brains reacted nearly identically, regardless of whether they were listening or reading. From the study’s conclusion: “Results suggest that the representation of language semantics is independent of the sensory modality through which the semantic information is received.”

In other words, our brains derive meaning from words. The format of the words don’t matter — it’s the words themselves that matter.

Given that brains interpret words the same regardless of input, it makes sense that I am often unable to remember whether I read or listened to a particular book. As far as my brain is concerned, it’s the same thing. And Fedden’s observations that her students often learn better when they use auditory supplements makes sense too. She’s not dumbing down her lessons — she’s making them better. She’s also making them more accessible.

So, if you don’t love reading but you enjoy a good podcast or audiobook, rest assured, your manner of absorbing information is every bit as valid and valuable as any bookworm’s. Heck, it may even be the smarter way to absorb information. When’s the last time a visual reading purist was able to devour a novel while simultaneously navigating rush-hour traffic?

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