Our brains on audiobooks


Our earliest experiences with stories are with their oral forms, both on an individual level and as a society. Many of us developed our love for stories from listening to the stories and anecdotes that we were told by our elders in our childhood. Human beings have been spinning tales and passing them down to later generations orally since long before the first words were put to paper. …

Recent research about the neuroscience of listening and reading has used functional MRI techniques to detect brain activity associated with these tasks. …

This is a short post, so a bit shallow itself, but there are several linked articles if you find the topic interesting.

Here is my favorite of the cited studies. This is quite funny:

Another branch of research seeks to compare brain activity between listening and reading. A recent study found that there are no discernible differences. This, however, might not be a very accurate generalization for the book vs. audiobook debate, since the participants in this study only read one word at a time, displayed at a pre-determined speed.

Ha ha ha! What kind of design is that? I mean, this definition of “reading” and my definition of “reading” don’t seem to intersect much. If one word is displayed at a time, that’s, what, word comprehension? It’s not reading. But maybe they weren’t trying to compare listening to stories with reading stories, but rather listening to words versus reading words. Not sure what the point would be, but let me just take a look. … Nope. This is supposed to be a comparison of listening versus reading narrative stories. Let me look at the actual methodology … The words of each story were presented one-by-one at the center of the screen using a rapid serial visual presentation (RSVP) procedure… During reading, each word was presented for a duration precisely equal to the duration of that word in the spoken story.

Well, having read the entire methods section, this strikes me as an incredibly convoluted design meant to control for unimportant things at the cost of losing the comparison between the actual experience of listening to a story versus the actual experience of reading a story. Now, granted, this is a rapid glance at the article. I haven’t read through their actual discussion of this topic, because I don’t really care about their conclusions, I was just intrigued by their methodology. This may not be quite fair, but I’m thinking this is a fantastic example of researchers who have gotten distracted by technique to the extent they have failed to realize their study does not and cannot apply to anything in the real world.

I’m still chuckling over this design, but I do want to go back to the Book Riot post long enough to point out that the post does say this particular study may not be relevant. I sure agree. I wouldn’t have cited it at all.

I’ve been listening to podcasts more than audiobooks lately, but the TUYO audiobook should be finished pretty soon, so I’m hoping quite a lot of people are really into audiobooks. Without doing any sort of study, do those of you who listen to audiobooks find the experience extremely similar to reading a book, fairly similar, or rather different?

I find it different in a few important ways:

  1. I like many slow-paced books, but a slow pace will kill an audiobook for me. I just get bored. I have not tried increasing the reading speed because I didn’t realize that was possible until pretty recently, so maybe I should try that and see if it makes a difference.

2. Writing flaws are magnified — I mean any awkwardness with sentence construction or word choice — because of the slower pace, I think, but this could be intrinsic to listening, I’m not sure.

3. I miss being able to flip back and forth and easily re-read (re-listen) to favorite bits.

But when walking three energetic young dogs on flexi-leads, it sure is easier to listen to something than read something.

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7 thoughts on “Our brains on audiobooks”

  1. This year, I’ve found that I enjoy listening to my comfort reading books, that I know well already.
    I have trouble with listening to new books, as I easily get distracted and miss a few words, then miss more while trying to figure out the meaning of the sentence and paragraph with the gap in it.
    If it’s a comfort reread, my mind just fills in the blanks and I’m not left puzzling.

    New short stories I can just about handle in audio, but with longer works I lose the thread.
    I find my memory for long and complicated sentence structures, as well as for retaining the sense of the overal argument or action or story-arc, is a lot less if the information comes in only by ear (especially if eyes or hands or sleepy/thinking mind can easily distract me).

    Also, I have to like the voice, and people with strong American accents don’t let me sink into the story, as I’m superficially distracted / rubbed the wrong way by the pronounciation feeling ‘off’ to me. I did love the Touchstone audiobooks!

    My dad has been reading aloud to us after dinner all my life, and has been taping these stories for more than a decade. I like to listen to those, even though he mispronounces or mis-stresses words fairly regularly* – his voice is so familiar I mentally just substitute the ‘right’ pronounciation and go on without a hitch.
    *As do I, a logical result of acquiring most of our English vocabulary from reading instead of hearing. I remember a friend from the US laughing when I first pronounced it inVENtory, like inventing something new, rather than INventory… it makes you blink and think for a moment, what was that word? if you expect to hear something else. Dad pronounces the name Sean as Sohn instead of Shawn so after the first time I just mentally substitute (oh, he’s talking about Shawn, yes now I remember). I guess, with English not being our native language, those little mental adjustments to unfamiliar pronounciations may present a bit of an extra obstacle to immersion in the story.

  2. Also I 100% agree that slowing reading speed down to listening speed, likely just so it would be easier to compare the respective scans, means they are NOT testing ‘the reading experience’ – there is no way anyone can get engaged in the story (let alone become immersed) if you have to ‘spell it out’ one word at a time.
    They may be testing which areas are involved in the mechanics of reading and word-recognition, but not the experience of reading a story or an article.

  3. I can’t do audiobooks – I just don’t absorb info very well by listening. It’s why I had to take so many notes in college lectures. I remember things I read or write, but not things I hear.

  4. I like audiobooks when driving or walking dogs, but I think that’s where the slow pace / fast pace comes in — if the pace slows down, I think about something else and poof! I have lost track of the story. Or if I think about the sentence, about the words, then I lose track of the next sentence and have to force myself to catch up, which I don’t like.

    Terry Pratchett works well for me because the stories are paced well and the writing is both good and funny, so I don’t find my attention drifting. Georgette Heyer can hold my attention. Sharon Shinn’s Echo trilogy held my attention very well too. But lots of books don’t do well in this format for me.

    Right now I’m listening to the finished audiobook for TUYO, so that very soon I should be able to hit “Approved” — I hope I will do that this week. I listened to it as Patrick finished each chapter, so this is my second time listening to it, and I was pretty familiar with it already, and *I* like it a lot, so I think it’s hitting the same “comfort read” as re-reading something super familiar such as the Touchstone books might.

    When I listen to a more academic podcast, then I often listen to it two or three times because yes, I don’t follow it as well or remember it as well as if I were reading the material. I agree with Sarah there. I might as well have skipped all lectures and just learned the material from the book, for nearly all classes.

  5. I can listen to audio books if I’m doing something else, like physical therapy or driving. I don’t try while walking as I’d rather pay attention to surroundings. I prefer to listen to a story I have already read, and the one time I tried to listen to a new-to-me story it was a major failure. I also have trouble with podcasts, I’d much rather read whatever the person is trying to say. Podcasters take too long to get to the point.

  6. I love audiobooks. Usually, if the narrator is good, my enjoyment of the story is enhanced. Characters having different voices/accents and hearing dialogue read with emotion bring it all to life, and can give extra clues that help me follow the story. (At the moment I’m listening to a book by Dorothy Dunnett and I’m riveted — but I suspect if I was reading it to myself, there’d be times when I’d start skimming and maybe lose track of what is going on. If I tune out for a paragraph of an audiobook, I at least have some a sense of what I’ve missed and I tend to tune back in again easily.)

    Humour can come across more clearly too. I find Terry Pratchett so much funnier in audiobook form (and have had similar experiences with authors like Douglas Adams, Jasper Fforde and Georgette Heyer).
    And spending more time with the story can mean I’m more invested in the story.

    But I don’t only, or even mostly, read audiobooks. There are stories I want to devour quickly — or at least not have to wait weeks and weeks to find out how they end (like romance, or epic fantasy). Recently, with an historical novel about prisoners in a concentration camp, I switched to the ebook so I could skim through the uncomfortable medical experiments.

    Unless I’m rereading something cover-to-cover, I prefer to reread to myself, so it’s not uncommon for me to finish an audiobook, for me to immediately borrow or buy the story as a paperback/ebook.

  7. Herenya, I haven’t yet instantly bought a book in another format after finishing an audiobook, but I’ve been tempted. I do like to have both formats because I enjoy re-reading certain scenes, and that’s so much easier with an ebook or paper book rather than an audiobook.

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