But I do acknowledge that the past 30 years have been very revolutionary, with a whirlwind of new technologies coming to the scene. Desktop computers, laptops, smartphones, the e reader, and a plethora of applications for every task imaginable are now available. We have so many options to consume reading material, it is a matter of picking your toy of choice.
Funny, there seems to be a cycle that presents itself with technology. Analog is replaced by digital but then after some period, analog comes back with a renewed appreciation and following. It happened with music and I say it will happen with books. The physical book will never go away just like the long-play vinyl records will never seize popularity with audiophiles.
However, this article is not one on technology but the question: are there cognitive differences in reading a book than listening to an audiobook? I personally felt, prior to writing this article, that listening to audiobooks was cheating of sorts. I did not have the same respect for the spoken word than for the written word. Notwithstanding my bias, I now have a new appreciation for e books and audiobooks.
Table of Contents
What are audiobooks and how do they compare to physical reading?
From a definitional point of view, the audiobook is a digital audio recording book available for streaming or downloading and listening on multiple devices.
This format has gained popularity with users who generally have busy lives and want to be as productive as possible. Audio books provide a valid option to read while doing other activities such as commuting or exercising. It is also a lifesaver option for visually impaired individuals.
FACT: Circa 9% of books sales in the US are audiobooks and as of 2022, 20% of Americans say they listen to audiobooks. For the fans of cool apps, I recommend BASMO, which can be found in the Apple and Google Play. This application tracks your reading habits, allows easily sharing of material with friends, and generally motivates the user to build a reading habit.
But, the question remains, are audiobooks as good as reading? Is learning and retention the same between reading a physical book and an audiobook?
To help answer these questions, in 2016 Beth Rogowsky, an associate professor of education at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania conducted a study to see what, if any, differences are present depending on the type of book format used. The results from her research highlighted that there was no marked difference in retention and understanding of the material, be it an audiobook or physical book, but there other studies which differ somewhat in results.
Another study examining different ways of keeping focus shows a significant difference between reading and listening to audiobooks for example. Apparently the retention of knowledge can be difficult and often forgotten, it can also be hard to concentrate when we don’t recall what we read.
As such, there is no universal truth on which is better for learning and retention. Physical books and audiobooks are both valid means of acquiring knowledge.
How do audiobooks help with memory retention while reading?
Audiobooks can be useful in improving memory retention and promoting good concentration. Some research even shows audiobook users can recall more information when compared to reading books. Additionally, the study finds that audiobook users retain information faster and more easily than those reading books traditionally.
That said, Daniel Willingham, a psychologist and expert in reading comprehension says there is a caveat. Comprehension of difficult to read material, complex, or unfamiliar, benefits from rereads which can more easily be done with a book. So depending on the type of material to be read, you should consider which format might be better suited for you.
Audiobooks vs reading: Brain benefits
Researchers show reading promotes brain health. In my other article on 8 health benefits of reading, you will find that reading can provide cognitive and emotional benefits, such as enhanced mental stimulation, improved memory and better problem-solving skills.
The brain is activated differently when reading vs listening
Although information we learn from reading and listening is almost identical, the process that is carried out in the brain varies significantly. The brain is activated through words or by print.
The process of reading activates specific regions in the brain that are responsible for language processing, while listening to audiobooks activates different areas. This distinction in activation patterns suggests that the brain processes information differently depending on whether it is received through reading or listening.
Furthermore, research has shown that reading text enhances visual processing in the brain, as the eyes track the words on the page and make connections between the letters and their meaning. On the other hand, listening to audiobooks or podcasts predominantly engages auditory processing regions, as the brain decodes the sounds and interprets them as words and sentences.
Interestingly, the engagement of these different brain regions during reading and listening can have implications for comprehension and memory. Studies have indicated that reading text allows for greater control over the pace of information intake, enabling readers to go back and review previous sections if needed. This active engagement with the text may enhance comprehension and retention of information.
In contrast, listening to audiobooks or podcasts may offer a more immersive experience, allowing listeners to focus on the content without the distractions of visual processing. However, this passive mode of information intake may result in a lower level of retention compared to reading text.
In conclusion, while reading and listening stimulate similar cortical areas in the brain, the specific pathways and regions involved differ depending on the reading format. Understanding these distinctions can provide valuable insights into how we process information and may have implications for optimizing learning experiences in different contexts.
Reading vs audiobooks: Enjoyment
It depends upon your own preference whether to listen to an audiobook or read a book. The enjoyment provided to each person varies according to preferences. However, audiobooks offer the potential to become more immersive or more enjoyable for listeners than traditional books. The narrator’s voice can replicate tones and accents that bring characters and events alive.
I acknowledge that the reading experience at the end of the day is personal preference. However, don’t dismiss the tens of thousands of readily available audiobooks that can increase your knowledge and your joy.
Never stop learning, never stop reading.