Your Brain On Audio Books: Distracted, Forgetful, And Bored

Of all the ways to enjoy a book, minds wander most when we're listening to someone else read it.

With so much focus in the publishing world on e-books, you might have missed the recent explosion in the popularity of audio books. They've become a billion-dollar industry with huge annual sales growth, in part because anyone with a smartphone can now also pocket an audio book. Alexandra Alter of the Wall Street Journal writes that the audio surge is changing the very way people read, "creating a new breed of literary omnivores who see narrated books and text as interchangeable."

These Narratextasaurs are certainly free to consume books however they please, and authors everywhere are no doubt thrilled with the rise of the species. But there's a real distinction between reading and listening that goes beyond any stuffy judgments made by book purists. Indeed, the evidence suggests that our mode of enjoying a book can alter the way we absorb its material. The very freedom granted by audio books--inviting the eyes to wander, and then the mind--may make them less intellectually interchangeable with printed ones than some readers would like.

Not long ago, a group of psychologists at the University of Waterloo in Ontario investigated the way our minds respond to various forms of reading material. They had 235 test participants engage with three excerpts of Bill Bryson's 2003 popular science book A Short History of Nearly Everything. The participants read one of the excerpts silently from a computer screen, read the second excerpt aloud off the screen, and listened to the third as the screen went blank.

During each of the three readings, the researchers tested for three cognitive impacts: mind-wandering, memory, and interest. Mind-wandering was measured with a prompt that appeared on the screen from time to time, asking participants whether or not they'd been paying attention. Memory was measured with a short true-or-false quiz after the excerpt. Interest was measured by participant rating.

Suffice it to say that listening and reading provided very different cognitive experiences. The minds of participants listening to the excerpt wandered significantly more than those reading it silently (which in turn wandered more than those reading aloud). The listening group also scored worse on the memory test than the reading groups did. And, oddly enough, listening even led to less interest in the passage compared to reading aloud (though not reading silently). The results were reported in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

Image via Frontiers in Psychology.

"It seems as though just listening is not as engaging as when people read, particularly out loud," Daniel Smilek, a co-author on the paper, tells Co.Design. "The way we're thinking about it is that the more your body's involved in the task, the less likely you are to be disengaged and mind-wander."

Smilek and collaborators draw a link between the amount of physical activity produced by a book and its grasp on a reader's mind. Reading aloud has both visual and vocal components, and reading silently at least requires the eye to keep pace with the page. Listening to a book, meanwhile, involves no real direct physical participation--making it easier for the mind or eyes to stray. (To that end, the research likely underestimates the mind-wandering effect of listening, since in real life there's much more to look at then just a blank screen.)

From a design standpoint, audio book producers could reduce mind-wandering by varying auditory stimuli. Different voices for each character or occasional fluctuations in volume, for instance, might nudge wandering minds back to the story. The concern with these external fixes, says Smilek, is that relying on them too much could weaken the internal focus we develop when reading off a page. "I worry that if you keep increasing the external support for attention we might actually atrophy the internal control for attention," he says.

Still, for many audio book devotees, the cognitive costs of retaining material or developing focus will be worth the convenience of incorporating books into other parts of their daily lives. The ability to listen and daydream and still complete a chore might be exactly the point. "I think people are just comfortable with that kind of tradeoff," Smilek says. Books are at their best when they take us somewhere, but taking them somewhere with us is a fine consolation.

[Images: Listening via Shutterstock]

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10 Comments

  • For me, it depends on the genre of audiobook. I am easily able to focus in non-fiction, academic type readings, whereas some of the more imaginative, multiple-speaker stories are definitely more difficult to focus on

  • For me, it depends on the genre of audiobook. I am easily as to focus in non-fiction, academic type readings, whereas some of the more imaginative, multiple-speaker stories are definitely more difficult to focus on

  • That is EXACTLY why I started recording them aloud without reading them first. You have to focus so hard on conveying the emotion in the text, differentiating in dialogue, the way you breathe, character development.... There's no room for your mind to wander. It's a great way to deal with pain.

  • Tavia Gilbert

    A relevant consideration is the skill of the actor voicing the text. Expert narrators are intellectually and emotionally engaged with the material, and present moment to moment, serving as the perfect medium for the content. Unskilled voices might be disconnected from the material, simply reading the words aloud without inhabiting the story or the passion behind the ideas, and they then create that low quality experience for the listener. It's vital, then, that the actors cast to narrate material are highly skilled in the audiobook craft, which takes training and discipline, as well as great focus and concentration. (taviagilbert.com)

  • Marc Avila

    The premise of this article pits reading against listening to books. However to many audio book listeners, that is not the choice. Rather the options or more likely: listen to a book or listen to NPR; listen to a book or listen to music; listen to a book or listen to nothing.

  • Chris Benson

    I've worked for a company that sells nothing but audiobooks for 25 years next week.

    As an avid reader, I responded to a help wanted ad that lead with "Must love books." and it took a long time for me to come around to actually listening to them. Of course, back in 1989, we still had to explain that they weren't just for blind people!

    But I think Kot Mar's idea that they should have tested competent listeners is spot on - after years of constant listening, I have gotten to where it's sometimes hard to remember whether I read or listened to some titles.

  • I have to agree with Kot Mar. As an avid reader from a very young age, I was a snob about audiobooks. Wouldn't even try them. Then, about ten years ago now, I found myself juggling aging parents, children, and a busy career. I read every day to my son, but when I tried to read something for myself, I fell asleep almost immediately Starved for books, I gave into the urging of a very well-read friend who has been listening to audio for many years. Ironically, the first book I listened to was the one mentioned in this study (I read/listen to a lot of non-fiction). I was surprised to find that not only was it very engaging, but I was retaining more, not less, of the book. Around the same time, my son was diagnosed with a severe eye-tracking issue that made reading difficult and uncomfortable. Thank goodness for audiobooks! I quickly became a convert - so much so that I left my print publishing job (managing editor) and started an audiobook publishing company - Post Hypnotic Press.

  • Kot Mar

    Still better than not reading! Don't know about others, but I can't bike/walk/drive and read at the same time. Additionally, listening is also a trained skill, just like reading, maybe what they should've done is compare competent readers and competent listeners! 60% of us learn better visually, there rest Auditory and tactile(?). Compare how it affects people in those groups. What was the distribution of the sample, were there a few people who comprehend better by listening as opposed to reading silently, my guess is there are.