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Noon Edition

The Neurology Of Audiobooks

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D:        Did you say something, Yael?

Y:        I was just asking what you’re listening to.

D:        An audiobook of Moby Dick. I’ve always wanted to read it, but never seem to have the time. But I’ve been able to fit in a few chapters every day with this audiobook version. By this rate, I’ll have finished reading it in a few months.

Y:        Well, finished listening, not reading.

D:        It’s the same thing.

Y:        Last time I checked, we use our eyes to read, and ears to listen.

D:        Sure, but reading gets processed in the brain, and scientists have found that reading and listening to books stimulates the same parts of the brain. In a study, they asked participants to listen to stories from The Moth Radio Hour, a storytelling podcast. Later, they read those same stories as text. As the participants read or listened, the scientists measured their cerebral brain flow using an fMRI machine, which showed which parts of the brain were activated. The brain data was matched with time-coded transcriptions of the story so scientists could see what the brain was doing at which moment and compare the reading and listening versions. Then they created maps to show what happens in the brain. To the researchers’ surprise, they found that there was no difference between what cognitive and emotional parts of the brain were stimulated whether participants read or listened to the same story. It’s good news for audiobook fans who might be worried they’re not getting the full experience by not physically reading the book.

Y:        Maybe I’ll check out the library’s audiobook offerings next time I visit, then.

Books on a table.

What's the difference, neurologically speaking, between reading a physical book and listening to an audiobook? (Abhi Sharma, Wikimedia Commons)

At first glance, or listen, it would seem that listening to a book read aloud in an audio recording would be very different from reading a physical copy. But reading gets processed in the brain, and scientists have found that reading and listening to books stimulates the same parts of the brain.

In a study, they asked participants to listen to stories from The Moth Radio Hour, a storytelling podcast. Later, they read those same stories as text. As the participants read or listened, the scientists measured their cerebral brain flow using an fMRI machine, which showed which parts of the brain were activated.

The brain data was matched with time-coded transcriptions of the story so scientists could see what the brain was doing at which moment and compare the reading and listening versions.Then they created maps to show what happens in the brain.

To the researchers' surprise, they found that there was no difference between what cognitive and emotional parts of the brain were stimulated whether participants read or listened to the same story. It's good news for audiobook fans who might be worried they're not getting the full experience by not physically reading the book.

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