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Are audiobooks “cheat reading”?

Despite their longer-than-you’d-think history and recent explosive popularity, audiobooks occupy an uncertain place on our map of intellectual pursuits. Listening to a book almost seems too easy, like we’re pocketing the benefits of reading while offloading the real work to someone else. We don’t even quite know what to call it: have we read an audiobook, or have we listened to it?

The debate about the cultural legitimacy of audiobooks isn’t new: cultural critics have been meeting spoken word literature with suspicion since cassette tapes first made long-form recordings easy and portable. In a 1985 piece in The New York Times, education critic Jonathan Kozol lamented “the quick-fix, toil-free process of listening,” calling it “one more disincentive to literacy.” Twenty years later, literary critic and print purist Harold Bloom suggested to the Times that audiobooks are an inherently shallower form of reading: “Deep reading really demands the inner ear as well as the outer ear,” he said. “You really need the whole cognitive process, that part of you, which is open to wisdom. You need the text in front of you.”

This long-standing discomfort with audio reading has been hard to shake, but thanks to advances in both audiobook production and reading research, audiobooks are losing their bad rap as the lazy way to read. In particular, the nagging perception of audio consumption as a less legitimate form of reading — as “reading” in quotes — isn’t really supported by science. We looked at some of the research.

Your brain on words
On a simple model of reading, there are two basic cognitive processes happening when we take in a print text. There’s the decoding or translation of symbols into words, and there’s the processing or comprehension of language. Decoding is specific to reading, but it’s not really something we need to work at: while it does present some difficulty for beginning readers and those with reading disabilities, it’s seamless for most adults, “no more effortful or error-prone than listening,” writes psychologist and reading researcher Daniel T. Willingham in The New York Times. This means that, contrary to popular perception, audio reading is not inherently lazier or more passive than visual reading: once we’ve recognized a word, our brains don’t really care whether we heard it spoken or saw it in print. As Willingham writes, the comprehension of written language draws on the same brain capabilities that evolved to support the understanding of spoken language: “Writing is less than 6,000 years old, insufficient time for the evolution of specialized mental processes devoted to reading.”

If there are differences between reading a book and listening to it, then, it’s not because our brains really distinguish between auditory and visual linguistic input. In a recent study, researchers from the Gallant Lab at UC Berkeley scanned the brains of participants as they read and listened to stories from The Moth Radio Hour podcast. To their surprise, they found that the brain maps for auditory and visual input looked about the same: words tended to activate the same brain regions, and with the same intensity. A very cool interactive brain map on the Gallant Lab website illustrates the results of scans, showing where different semantic categories are represented in the brain — where activity is happening when we read or hear social words like “married,” for example, as indicated by changes in blood oxygen level. While the brains reacted differently to different content, then, they weren’t so concerned about “input modality,” or the way they received it: the semantic maps showed that listening and reading produced nearly identical brain activation.

Content matters
So, can we close the book on the audiobook debate? Maybe not so fast. Some research suggests that differences between reading and listening do start to emerge with certain types of texts, especially as we get into more difficult or unfamiliar content. In a 2010 study, students who listened to a podcast lesson performed much worse — scoring an average of 28% of lower — than students who read the same lesson on paper. Rather than signalling something happening at the level of language processing, however, the different scores likely reflect a more practical consideration: print reading is self-paced, allowing us to progress through a text our own speed and, crucially, to go back when we haven’t really understood something. Studies of eye movement during reading show that about 10 to 25 percent of eye activity is actually regressive, with the eyes flicking back to reprocess words or information. These quick, unconscious backward movements are combined with more deliberate backtracking to words or passages that we missed or incompletely processed the first time. This ability to revisit information most certainly helps us understand it better, and while it’s possible to jump back on an audiobook, it’s not as seamless as when we’re reading: we could pause and fiddle with the rewind button until we’ve found the bit we missed, but we probably won’t.

Another way print seems to facilitate comprehension is by giving us the benefit of spatial landmarks that help us know where we are in a text. Even nonfiction books tend to follow a broad narrative or argumentative arc — a beginning-middle-end structure that combines with smaller movements of tension and resolution to create a book’s forward momentum. Research on differences in comprehension and retention levels between print and e-books has suggested that the ability to spatially orient oneself in a print text makes for easier reading and better comprehension. As Willingham put it in a piece in Time, “As you’re reading a narrative, the sequence of events is important, and knowing where you are in a book helps you build that arc of narrative.” These spatial cues are less tangibly obvious in e-readers, where they take the form of a percentage or progress bar showing the length of time to a book’s end, and they’re almost absent when we listen to an audiobook.

Despite these practical differences between audio and text, most reading researchers and book lovers want everyone to know that “you can have a close and perfectly valid relationship with the text when you hear it,” as Neil Gaiman put it in a piece for NPR. As defenders of audio reading point out, people have been listening to stories far longer than they’ve been reading them, and oral storytelling has its own virtues: a narrator’s interpretation of a text can help convey its beauty and meaning, shaping the material into an expressive new medium. And in the end, it’s hard to object to something that helps people fit more books into their day.

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