Is Listening to a Book the Same Thing as Reading It?

A few years ago, when people heard I was a reading researcher, they might ask about their child’s dyslexia or how to get their teenager to read more. But today the question I get most often is, “Is it cheating if I listen to an audiobook for my book club?”

Audiobook sales have doubled in the last five years while print and e-book sales are flat. These trends might lead us to fear that audiobooks will do to reading what keyboarding has done to handwriting — rendered it a skill that seems quaint and whose value is open to debate. But examining how we read and how we listen shows that each is best suited to different purposes, and neither is superior.

In fact, they overlap considerably. Consider why audiobooks are a good workaround for people with dyslexia: They allow listeners to get the meaning while skirting the work of decoding, that is, the translation of print on the page to words in the mind. Although decoding is serious work for beginning readers, it’s automatic by high school, and no more effortful or error prone than listening. Once you’ve identified the words (whether by listening or reading), the same mental process comprehends the sentences and paragraphs they form.

Writing is less than 6,000 years old, insufficient time for the evolution of specialized mental processes devoted to reading. We use the mental mechanism that evolved to understand oral language to support the comprehension of written language. Indeed, research shows that adults get nearly identical scores on a reading test if they listen to the passages instead of reading them.

Nevertheless, there are differences between print and audio, notably prosody. That’s the pitch, tempo and stress of spoken words. “What a great party” can be a sincere compliment or sarcastic put-down, but they look identical on the page. Although writing lacks symbols for prosody, experienced readers infer it as they go. In one experiment, subjects listened to a recording of someone’s voice who either spoke quickly or slowly. Next, everyone silently read the same text, purportedly written by the person whose voice they had just heard. Those hearing the quick talker read the text faster than those hearing the slow talker.

But the inferences can go wrong, and hearing the audio version — and therefore the correct prosody — can aid comprehension. For example, today’s student who reads “Wherefore art thou Romeo?” often assumes that Juliet is asking where Romeo is, and so infers that the word art would be stressed. In a performance, an actress will likely stress Romeo, which will help a listener realize she’s musing about his name, not wondering about his location.

It sounds as if comprehension should be easier when listening than reading, but that’s not always true. For example, one study compared how well students learned about a scientific subject from a 22-minute podcast versus a printed article. Although students spent equivalent time with each format, on a written quiz two days later the readers scored 81 percent and the listeners 59 percent.

What happened? Note that the subject matter was difficult, and the goal wasn’t pleasure but learning. Both factors make us read differently. When we focus, we slow down. We reread the hard bits. We stop and think. Each is easier with print than with a podcast.

Print also supports readers through difficult content via signals to organization like paragraphs and headings, conventions missing from audio. Experiments show readers actually take longer to read the first sentence of a paragraph because they know it probably contains the foundational idea for what’s to come.

So although one core process of comprehension serves both listening and reading, difficult texts demand additional mental strategies. Print makes those strategies easier to use. Consistent with that interpretation, researchers find that people’s listening and reading abilities are more similar for simple narratives than for expository prose. Stories tend to be more predictable and employ familiar ideas, and expository essays more likely include unfamiliar content and require more strategic reading.

This conclusion — equivalence for easy texts and an advantage to print for hard ones — is open to changes in the future. As audiobooks become more common, listeners will gain experience in comprehending them and may improve, and publishers may develop ways of signaling organization auditorily.

But even with those changes, audiobooks won’t replace print because we use them differently. Eighty-one percent of audiobook listeners say they like to drive, work out or otherwise multitask while they listen. The human mind is not designed for doing two things simultaneously, so if we multitask, we’ll get gist, not subtleties.

Still, that’s no reason for print devotees to sniff. I can’t hold a book while I mop or commute. Print may be best for lingering over words or ideas, but audiobooks add literacy to moments where there would otherwise be none.

So no, listening to a book club selection is not cheating. It’s not even cheating to listen while you’re at your child’s soccer game (at least not as far as the book is concerned). You’ll just get different things out of the experience. And different books invite different ways that you want to read them: As the audio format grows more popular, authors are writing more works specifically meant to be heard.

Our richest experiences will come not from treating print and audio interchangeably, but from understanding the differences between them and figuring out how to use them to our advantage — all in the service of hearing what writers are actually trying to tell us.

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.

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 otherwords.

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, then, you really can’t consider listening to a book to be easier than reading it. But there are other differences here, of course, one being that it’s really easy for your mind to begin to wander when you’re listening to an audiobook. But is that more or less likely to happen as skimming the less interesting parts when you’re reading? There’s not exactly an easy way to test that question empirically, but there are some comparable things about the way people circle back to catch the stuff they missed, whether they’re reading or listening. “About 10 to 20 percent of the eye movements you make are actually regressions, where your eyes are moving backwards,” Willingham explained. Many of those regressions happen when you thought you had the word, but — whoops, no, you didn’t quite get it; others happen when you might be trying to work out syntax.

And something similar happens with the brain’s auditory system, specifically a phenomenon called echoic memory. “I’m sure you’ve had the experience where someone says something, and you’re not really listening, and then you can tell from their intonation that they’ve stopped talking and that they’ve asked you a question,” Willingham said. “And you’re like, ‘Oh, shit, I totally was not listening to this person.’ And then you say, ‘I’m sorry, what?’ And then in that moment where you say, ‘I’m sorry, what?’ — you’re able to recover what it was they asked you.” You did not listen. And yet you still heard, and there is a wisp of a memory of that, which is still banging around inside your mind. “And you are, in the time it takes you to say, ‘I’m sorry, what?’ — you are consulting that little memory store, and you get the last second or two of what they said,” he continued. So that, he argues, is comparable to the visual system’s eye regressions: In both mental processes, your mind ticks back to what it just consumed, in order to double check the meaning.

The TL;DR version of all of this is that as far as the mental processes are concerned, there really isn’t much difference between reading and listening to a book. One is not more work than the other. And yet there is, maybe, something to the way your elementary-school teacher might’ve phrased the question — you’re only cheating yourself. Returning for a moment to the simple model of reading: The decoding process does become automatic once you’ve passed a certain level of reading proficiency, but you can become even better at this well into adulthood — and the only way to get better is by reading. The improvements are small (“infinitesimal,” as Willingham put it) but they are there, and up for the grabs for a reader. Comprehension, too, is something that improves the more you read. And there are also, of course, times when you need to remind yourself of something farther back in the text, something that is no longer held in that one- to two-second echoic memory. (Which Greyjoy is Victarion, again?) You could pause the audiobook and hit that 15-second rewind button until you find it. But you probably won’t.

There’s also this question to contend with: Are you consuming the text the way the author intended it? (And how much does that matter?) The reader of Willingham’s own audiobook did a wonderful job, for example, but there were jokes stepped on, punch lines that didn’t quite land the way Willingham exactly intended. (This, incidentally, is why listening to one of those recent books in the funny female memoir genre — like Amy Poehler’s Yes Please — is often a much better experience than reading them.) “The idea that you are experiencing the novel in a way the author did not intend, that you’re missing out in some way — I’m much more open to that than ‘You listened to it, you big cheater,’” Willingham said.

The literary value of audiobooks versus print books — that’s up for wider interpretation. But there’s another way to consider the question of cheating, one that, incidentally, annoys Willingham the most. On my commute this week, for example, I began listening to H Is for Hawk, and so some might argue that, once I’m done, I can’t claim to have really “read” it. “There are people who think of reading as a sort of achievement, a mark of honor that you’ve done something worthy of respect,” Willingham said. “There’s this sense that when you have read a book, you’ve done something that is worthy of pride, and it is worthy of other people patting you on the back.”

This, to his mind, is nonsense, a holdover from elementary-school days. “You know, there are classrooms that are set up with that very much in mind,” he said. “There’s a reader wall and you get a star next to your name every time you finish a book, and the number of books is counted. And I think some of that feeling in adults may be … a hangover from prior school experiences.” It’s a rather sad way to view reading as an adult, he contends, and he has a point. After all, grown-ups can’t exchange a list of books they’ve read for a free personal panpizza.

Reading in and of itself has plenty of benefits for our minds: Studies have shown that reading over the course of a lifetime (or even starting to read consistently when you’re well into your 60s and 70s) can prevent mental decline. Along with keeping your mind sharp and enlarging your knowledge base, reading can expand your sense of empathy, too. A 2013 study found that when people were transported into the emotional travails of books’ characters, they grew to become more empathetic in real life.


So the act of reading is great, of course. But the way you’re reading also has an impact on your physical and mental health. In our technology-driven world, the paper book has been replaced by electronic devices — Kindles and Nooks, and even reading on your laptop or smartphone. Good old-fashioned books are no longer seen as practical.

There’s something simple and special, however, about reading a classic paper book that e-books seem to lack. Recently, I was reading before bed while I drank a cup of chamomile tea, and I found that it not only relaxed me, but I fell asleep almost immediately, I slept soundly through the entire night, and I woke up feeling refreshed. I found myself pondering events and scenes in the book, the imagery glowing in my mind in place of my typically exhausting anxieties. I’m going to believe it wasn’t a coincidence: Putting aside my phone — which, in addition to texting, has access to the cyclical, distracting spirals of Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat — and focusing on a tale that took me outside of myself, somehow, inexplicably, helped me feel better on many levels.

Reading sharpens the mind and helps fight off dementias.

Researchers have been examining the differences between reading regular books and e-books for years. Many of the studies have shown that reading old-fashioned books has plenty of advantages over e-books, which can be gateways to other electronic distractions, all of which screw with your sleep. This is why you should ditch the screen for printed pages.

1.You’re Missing Out On Important Information

A 2014 study found that readers who used Kindles were less competent in recalling the plot and events in the book than those who used paperbacks. Researchers still aren’t quite sure why this occurs, but it might have something to do with being able to physically and visually track your progress in a real book.

“In this study, we found that paper readers did report higher on measures having to do with empathy and transportation and immersion, and narrative coherence, than iPad readers,” said Anne Mangen of Stavanger University in Norway, an author of the study, according to The Guardian. “When you read on paper you can sense with your fingers a pile of pages on the left growing, and shrinking on the right. You have the tactile sense of progress, in addition to the visual. … Perhaps this somehow aids the reader, providing more fixity and solidity to the reader’s sense of unfolding and progress of the text, and hence the story.”

Digitization of text also means it’s likely to be more fragmented, full of disturbances and links that can lead you to anywhere on the Internet. Reading on an iPad with the ability to check Facebook provides an avenue to take “breaks” way too often. And in order to retain information, you need to read in long, undisturbed chunks of time.

Using laptops or phones late at night to read doesn’t make way for restful sleep, according to studies.

2.E-Books Get In The Way Of Sleepytime

A recent study out of Harvard University found that reading an e-book before bed lessened the production of an important sleep hormone known as melatonin. As a result, people took much longer to fall asleep, experienced less deep sleep, and were more fatigued in the morning.

“The light emitted by most e-readers is shining directly into the eyes of the reader, whereas from a printed book or the original Kindle, the reader is only exposed to reflected light from the pages of the book,” Charles Czeisler, lead author of the study, told the BBC. “Sleep deficiency has been shown to increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, metabolic diseases like obesity and diabetes, and cancer. Thus, the melatonin suppression that we saw in this study among participants when they were reading from the light-emitting e-reader concerns us.”

In contrast, reading an old-fashioned book can actually help you sleep better. By taking your mind off the things that you may normally stress about before falling asleep, a book can clear your mind and also make you sleepy, easing you into a full night’s rest. In addition, soft light being reflected off the pages of a book doesn’t signal to your brain that it’s time to wake up like the glaring screen of an e-book or phone.

Putting away your electronic devices and focusing on a paper book creates singularity in focus.

3.Screens = Stress

Reading helps you de-stress faster or just as fast as listening to music, taking a walk, or having a cup of tea or coffee, according to a 2009 study. When researchers measured heart rate and muscle tension, they found that people relaxed just six minutes into reading.

But reading on a device might cancel out this effect, and may even impact your stress levels negatively. Repeated use of mobile phones or laptops late at night has beenlinked to depression, higher levels of stress, and fatigue among young adults. Constant use of technology not only disrupts our sleeping patterns and throws off our circadian rhythms, but it fosters a shorter attention span and fractured focus — online, we jump from meme to meme and link to link, checking Facebook intermittently. Social media and technological distractions also always seem to foster guilt and regret, and before we know it, three hours have passed and our brains feel like mush.

It’s hard to put my finger on what exactly draws me to paper books, and makes me avoid electronic ones. Perhaps it’s the tangible qualites: Turning the pages of a book helps me mark my progress, and underlining prose that stands out to me makes reading a very intimate occasion. It could also be the science behind it: that regular books ease our minds into sleep. But it’s likely that reading allows me to rely on a singular focus to transport me to a new world, leaving all my stresses and personal problems behind. I stop the selfish cycle of technology that centers around checking my Facebook or Instagram, or taking selfies, as I wait for my brain to get rewarded from notifications and likes. Real books allow me to step outside myself and enter someone else’s world. The modern world, after all, can be tiring.

Reading an old-fashioned paper book might seem out of style, wasteful, or impractical. But don’t underestimate the simplicity of holding a physical book in your hands, flipping through the pages, and not having anything else to shift your focus to. Commit to the classic paper book and you’ll get the full, healthier experience.

E-Readers Foil Good Night’s Sleep

Light-emitting electronic devices keep readers awake longer than old-fashioned print.

Use of a light-emitting electronic book (LE-eBook) in the hours before bedtime can adversely impact overall health, alertness and the circadian clock, which synchronizes the daily rhythm of sleep to external environmental time cues, according to Harvard Medical School researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. These findings of the study that compared the biological effects of reading an LE-eBook to a printed book are published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on December 22, 2014.


“We found the body’s natural circadian rhythms were interrupted by the short-wavelength enriched light, otherwise known as blue light, from these electronic devices,” said Anne-Marie Chang, corresponding author and associate neuroscientist at Brigham and Women’s Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders. “Participants reading an LE-eBook took longer to fall asleep and had reduced evening sleepiness, reduced melatonin secretion, later timing of their circadian clock and reduced next-morning alertness than when reading a printed book.”

Previous research has shown that blue light suppresses melatonin, impacts the circadian clock and increases alertness, but little was known about the effects of this popular technology on sleep. The use of light-emitting devices immediately before bedtime is a concern because of the extremely powerful effect that light has on the body’s natural sleep/wake pattern and how that may play a role in perpetuating sleep deficiency.

During the two-week inpatient study, twelve participants read digital books on an iPad for four hours before bedtime each night for five consecutive nights. This was repeated with printed books. The order was randomized with some reading on the iPad first and others reading the printed book first. Participants reading on the iPad took longer to fall asleep, were less sleepy in the evening and spent less time in REM sleep. They had reduced secretion of melatonin, a hormone that normally rises in the evening and plays a role in inducing sleepiness. Additionally, iPad readers had a delayed circadian rhythm, indicated by melatonin levels, of more than an hour. Participants who read on the iPad were less sleepy before bedtime but were sleepier and less alert the following morning after eight hours of sleep. Although iPads were used in this study, researchers also measured other devices that emit blue light, including eReaders, laptops, cell phones and LED monitors.

“In the past 50 years, there has been a decline in average sleep duration and quality,” said Charles Czeisler, the HMS Frank Baldino, Jr., Ph.D. Professor of Sleep Medicine and chief of the Brigham and Women’s Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders. “Since more people are choosing electronic devices for reading, communication and entertainment, particularly children and adolescents who already experience significant sleep loss, epidemiological research evaluating the long-term consequences of these devices on health and safety is urgently needed.”

Researchers emphasize the importance of these findings, given recent evidence linking chronic suppression of melatonin secretion by nocturnal light exposure with the increased risk of breast cancer, colorectal cancer and prostate cancer.

Want to Read Minds? Read Good Books.

You’re an open book. After digesting short literary excerpts, people performed better on the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test—a common measure of the ability to judge others’ mental states—compared with readers of popular fiction.

Fifty Shades of Grey may be a fun read, but it’s not going to help you probe the minds of others the way War and Peace might. That’s the conclusion of a new study, which finds that, compared with mainstream fiction, high-brow literary works do more to improve our ability to understand the thoughts, emotions, and motivations of those around us.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that the lead author of the new study, David Kidd, came to social psychology by way of Russian literature. Now a Ph.D. student at the New School in New York City, he is versed in arguments from literary theorists that divide fiction into two categories. When we read a thrilling-but-predictable bestseller, “the text sort of grabs us and takes us on a roller-coaster ride,” he says, “and we all sort of experience the same thing.” Literature, on the other hand, gives the reader a lot more responsibility. Its imaginary worlds are full of characters with confusing or unexplained motivations. There are no reliable instructions about whom to trust or how to feel.

Kidd and his adviser, social psychologist Emanuele Castano, suspected that the skills we use to navigate these ambiguous fictional worlds serve us well in real life. In particular, the duo surmised that they enhance our so-called theory of mind. That’s the ability to intuit someone else’s mental state—to know, for example, that when someone raises their hand toward us, they’re trying to give us a high-five rather than slap us. It’s closely related to empathy, the ability to recognize and share the feelings of others. Increasing evidence supports the relationship between reading fiction and theory of mind. But much of this evidence is based on correlations: Self-reported avid readers or those familiar with fiction also tend to perform better on certain tests of empathy, for example.

To measure the immediate cognitive effects of two types of fiction, Castano and Kidd designed five related experiments. In each, they asked subjects to read 10 to 15 pages of either literary or popular writing. Literary excerpts included short stories by Anton Chekhov and Don DeLillo, as well as recent winners of the PEN/O. Henry Prize and the National Book Award. For more “mainstream” selections, they looked to top-sellers such as Danielle Steel’s The Sins of the Mother and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, and to anthologies of genre fiction, including a sci-fi story by Robert Heinlein.

When participants finished their excerpts, they took tests designed to measure theory of mind. In one test, the Diagnostic Analysis of Nonverbal Accuracy 2—Adult Faces (DANVA2-AF) test, they looked at a face for 2 seconds and decided whether the person appeared happy, angry, afraid, or sad. In the more nuanced Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test (RMET), they saw only a small slice of a face and picked from four complex emotions such as “contemplative” and “skeptical.”

On average, both groups did slightly better on these tests than control subjects who read either a nonfiction article or nothing at all. This fits with previous research showing a positive relationship between fiction and theory of mind. But among the fiction readers, those who read “literary” works scored significantly higher on the theory of mind tests than those who read popular selections, Kidd and Castano report online today in Science. The absolute differences in scores were hardly dramatic: On average, the literary group outperformed the popular group by about two questions (out of 36) on the RMET test, and missed one fewer question (out of 18) on the DANVA2-AF. But psychologist Raymond Mar of York University in Toronto, Canada, notes that even very small effects could be meaningful, provided they translate into real-world consequences—reducing the likelihood that social misunderstandings could create grudges or leave someone in tears.

Keith Oatley, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Toronto, agrees that any evidence of literature’s effect based on this experimental approach is “big news.” “I’m quite impressed that they managed to find results with these tests.”

Still, the “literariness” argument needs hammering out. Castano believes these results show that fiction’s power doesn’t hinge on exposing readers to foreign viewpoints or offering a persuasive, empathetic message. “For us, it’s not about the content,” he says. “It was about the process.” But Mar points out that there are probably many ways to improve theory of mind, and “different things might work for different people.” Some may find that stories with a moral of acceptance and empathy increase their theory of mind skills, for example, while others might benefit more from the practice of filling in the emotional gaps in an ambiguous story.

Cognitive neuroscientist Vittorio Gallese of the University of Parma in Italy, who is also exploring how the brain responds to works of art, finds the new link between real and fictional worlds exciting, but is skeptical of the distinction between literary and mainstream fiction. “This is a very slippery ground,” he says, because historical tastes often move the boundary between “high” and “low” art. For example, he says, Honoré de Balzac’s The Human Comedy was released in serial form as a work of “popular” fiction, but has since attained the status of a classic.