To Your Brain, Listening to a Book Is Pretty Much the Same As Reading It
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To Your Brain, Listening to a Book Is Pretty Much the Same As Reading It

As is required of all women in their 30s, I am in a book club. At the first meeting of this group, one poor unsuspecting woman mentioned that she had listened to that month’s selection instead of reading it. That, the rest of the group decided together, is definitely cheating. Never mind that no one could exactly articulate how or why it was cheating; it just felt like it was, and others would agree. She never substituted the audiobook for the print version again (or, if she did, she never again admitted it).

This question — whether or not listening to an audiobook is “cheating” — is one University of Virginia psychologist Daniel Willingham gets fairly often, especially ever since he published a book, in 2015, on the science of reading. (That one was about teaching children to read; he’s got another book out next spring about adults and reading.) He is very tired of this question, and so, recently, he wrote a blog post addressing it. (His opening line: “I’ve been asked this question a lot and I hate it.”) If, he argues, you take the question from the perspective of cognitive psychology — that is, the mental processes involved — there is no real difference between listening to a book and reading it. So, according to that understanding of the question: No, audiobooks are not cheating.

His reasoning reveals some fascinating insights about the way the brain makes sense of language, whether written or spoken. But first, consider what that assertion — that listening is cheating — is saying: It suggests that the listener got some reward without putting in the work. Because that does seem to be the typical argument, Willingham said. “It’s not that you’re missing out on something, or it’s not that this experience could be better for you,” he told Science of Us. “It’s that you’re cheating. And so they think you’re getting the rewarding part of it … and it’s the difficult part that you’ve somehow gotten out of.” So that implies, Willingham argues, that to your brain, listening is less “work” than reading. And that is true, sort of — but it stops being true somewhere around the fifth grade.

There are two basic processes happening when you’re reading: There is decoding, or translating the strings of letters into words that mean something. And then there is language processing, or comprehension — that is, figuring out the syntax, the story, et cetera. (It’s obviously much more complicated than that; this is what’s known as the “simple view” of reading, but it’s sufficient for thinking about the question at hand.) Researchers have studied the question of comprehension for decades, and “what you find is very high correlations of reading comprehension and listening comprehension,” Willingham said. As science writer Olga Khazan noted in 2011, a “1985 study found listening comprehension correlated strongly with reading comprehension — suggesting that those who read books well would listen to them well. In a 1977 study, college students who listened to a short story were able to summarize it with equal accuracy as those who read it.” Listeners and readers retain about equal understanding of the passages they’ve consumed, in other words.

Decoding, by contrast, is specific to reading, Willingham said; this is indeed one more step your mind has to take when reading a print book as compared to listening to the audiobook version. But by about late elementary school, decoding becomes so second-nature that it isn’t any additional “work” for your brain. It happens automatically.

According to the simple model of reading,

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