We live in a very busy world. With the rise of the pandemic, we seem to have become even busier. With many of us working from home, bosses and companies are expecting more from us than ever before. This can mean that we don’t tend to get a lot of downtime. It’s no secret that reading is a brilliant way to keep your brain healthy and improve cognition. But we have so much to do in the day, time often seems to run away from us. Audiobooks are a convenient alternative to reading. But do they offer the same benefits as reading a physical or even a digital book?
Beth Rogowsky, an associate professor of education at the Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania, spoke to Time, and she said something important. She, like me, had always seen listening to audiobooks as “cheating”. But is that the case? So, are we cheating the system?
Audio vs Digital vs Print
Rogowsky spoke to Time about some studies she had done regarding just this. Participants were separated into three groups. One group just listened to the book in audio format, the second read the book in a digital format, and the third did both simultaneously. This was a study that was conducted in 2016. But the findings are definitely interesting. When all the participants took a quiz after finishing the book, there were “no significant differences in comprehension between reading, listening, or reading and listening simultaneously”.
But there is an issue with this study, Rogowsky’s study only pitted audio against digital. The good old, physical print books weren’t tested.
According to Time, this is more of an issue than one might think. Living in the digital age, we tend to forget that there are definitely bad aspects of the tech we use on a day-to-day basis. But books in digital format lose a lot more than you might think.
For one, according to Daniel Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, reading a physical book is much better in terms of understanding the narrative. It’s also much better for the brain when it comes to narrative orientation. This is simply an understanding of where you are in the book. When you go digital or audio, you lose that. When it comes to traditional print, we also seem to remember it better. This is likely due to the fact that the text is in a specific place and will not move. Your brain is thus better able to locate it and in the long run, this often leads to better memory of what you have read.
What benefits does reading have?
Cognitively speaking, reading is a fantastic thing to do. It engages the brain and requires higher-level cognitive processing. There is also an aspect of integrating, information, language, and comprehension. According to author Kristen Willeumier, Ph.D., it activates multiple parts of the brain at once. These include the frontal lobe, occipital lobe, temporal lobe, temporal lobe, and cerebellum.
When you read consistently, Dr. Willeumier explains that it strengthens your ability to communicate and will improve your vocabulary, reasoning, concentration, and critical thinking skills while enhancing brain network connectivity. Not only that but it is even associated with an increase in longevity. A Yale School of Public Health study found that reading consistently over the course of your life is associated with 20% reduction in the mortality rate. However, these studies focused on physical books and did not include audio or digital books.
So, reading a physical book is great but could listening be just as good?
Dr. Willeumier explains that when it comes to reading and listening, they do have similarities. In either case, the brain is still functioning at a higher level. Whether you are reading a physical book or listening to an audiobook makes very little difference cognition-wise. This is because listening still requires similar processes. You still need to exercise your comprehension skills and the brain still has to work to connect different aspects of the story. As well as understanding the storyline and maintaining consistent focus. However, there are still some differences.
One of the major differences is the way the brain is activated. When you are reading print, the left side of the brain activates. This is the side of the brain that is associated with the processing aspect of language.
However, when you’re listening to something, both your left and right brain activate. Whether it’s in audio format or not, the actual processing of the information occurs in the same areas of the brain.
A benefit of listening to an audiobook rather than reading physical print is the development of greater empathy. Listening allows you to hear the emotion in the narrator’s voice. When you’re listening to something, the emotional circuits in the brain activate. This acts to increase understanding and heighten imagery. This means that your imagination is more engaged. This often leads to greater enjoyment of the book.
The content is actually more important
Dr. Willeumier says that what actually matters is how complex the plot of the book is. Even with written text, the content is the most important aspect. The more complex the content, the harder the brain has to work in order to understand and maintain concentration.
But physical books are still better for learning
If you’re actually looking to learn, you’d be better off with a physical book than an audio or digital format. This is mostly because, as humans, we have a tendency to zone out. If you’re listening to a fiction book, you could just skip back and get back into the story.
However, when it comes to learning and retaining information, a physical book is your best option. David Daniel, a professor of psychology at James Madison University, told Time that, when it comes to more complicated texts, you are much better off with a physical book. You can easily jump backward, re-read and underline or highlight things you don’t understand. It is also much easier to make notes and, thus, you retain information better.
This is backed by a 2010 study conducted on students. One group listened to a podcast and the other physically read the content. Both groups were then quizzed on the content. The group that listened to the podcast did a lot worse than the group that read the physical material. In fact, the marks were a massive 28% lower on average for the podcast group.
Daniel also mentions that, when asked at the start of the experiment, most wanted to be in the podcast group. When asked just before taking the quiz, the podcast group had changed their minds and knew they hadn’t retained enough information.
So, what’s the takeaway?
Ultimately, if you are simply looking to listen to a book for pure enjoyment, there is little to no difference. Either way that you choose to go about it, you are doing something beneficial for the brain. When it comes to leisure, listening to a book is a great idea. We lead such busy lives, so listening is a great way to get your fill of reading without having to physically carry around a book. It also means that you can simultaneously do other tasks. So, really, we should stop considering listening to books as cheating. As long as you’re just listening for leisure, listen away.