Listening to an audiobook feels like cheating, sometimes—easier, if not quicker, than delving into some text. But how do our brains interpret words in audio form, compared to text form?

By Dan Nosowitz
September 05, 2019

Audiobooks have an advantage that regular books—whether in ebook or paper form—don’t. You can drive, wash dishes, exercise, or go for a walk while listening to an audiobook, while all of those tasks can be pretty tricky while keeping your eyes glued to a page. But how are our brains interpreting those audio versions? Are we really ingesting stories to the fullest extent when we’re just listening?

A new study from the Gallant Lab at the University of California, Berkeley, sought to answer that question. The researchers had nine subjects either read or listen to the audio versions of stories—in this case, a few episodes of The Moth, a series of real-life stories presented both in text and as a radio or podcast show

Image courtesy of Getty.

While ingesting these stories, the subjects were given neuroimaging scans, specifically fMRI scans. The fMRI scan works to map neural activity in the different parts of the brain, so you can see what part of the brain is being engaged, and how much. Because listening to audiobooks and reading a regular book involve two different senses (hearing and sight), you might expect that they’d show up as very different brain-maps, right? 

Related: Reading Really Does Make You Happier

Not so! The study found that brain activity is remarkably consistent no matter how a book is actually perceived. It seems that it doesn’t matter how you read, whether you’re reading with your eyes or “reading” with your ears. Your brain interprets what you’re perceiving in just about the same way. There are also some pretty great possibilities here for people who struggle to consume books in the traditional way, as Discover Magazine notes. Those with sight impairments, dyslexia, or other sensory issues may have the option to consume books via sound, instead.

So don’t feel like you’re missing anything by playing an audiobook instead of grabbing a hardcover book. Your brain doesn’t really care.

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