To Your Brain, Audiobooks Are Not 'Cheating'
“A 985 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.”
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There is no real difference between listening to a book and reading as the mental processes involved are the same. Studies show that listeners and readers retain about equal understanding of the passages they’ve consumed.
There are slight differences between them, one being that it’s really easy for your mind to wander when you’re listening to an audiobook, but some scientists believe it amounts to the same as the involuntary rereading eye movements we do while reading.
Simplifying, two basic processes happen when you read: There is decoding, or translating the strings of letters into words with meaning. And then there is language processing, or comprehension.
Decoding is specific to reading but by about late elementary school, decoding becomes so second-nature that it isn’t any additional “work” for your brain. It happens automatically.
Reading regularly involves many regressions, where you reread parts of the text to ascertain a word or syntax.
Listening sometimes requires echoic memory which is a brain feature that allows us to remember something we heard without paying attention to it a few seconds after we heard if needed.
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With print books, you need to provide the voice, imagine the tune and rhythm of speech, the intonation, stress of syllables, and so on. All this gets provided for you when listening to audio. With audiobooks, you're using different methods to decode and understand it. But it still deeply impacts your thoughts and feelings.
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Regardless of which reading method you use, the evidence points towards the fact that speed comes at the sacrifice of understanding.
Depending on what you’re reading, this might not necessarily be a bad thing: If you’re trying to get through a dry piece to capture a few key points or you are going through a short piece that’s easy to understand, speed reading strategies might make sense.