QotW: Brain response to Audiobooks

17 July 2018

Interview with

Matt Davis, Cambridge University

This week, Isabelle Cochrane asked Matt Davis from Cambridge University to read into this brainy question from Tuomo.

Tuomo - Does your brain respond differently when you're listening to an audiobook compared to when you're reading a book? And does this affect how much detail you can remember?

Isabelle - On the forum, Tomas reckons that the main difference is that in each case, there is activity in different areas of the brain. Evan, on the other hand, is more concerned about our safety:

Evan - If you are listening to an audiobook while driving your car, I hope there are at least some periods of time when your attention is focused entirely on the driving!

Isabelle - But what do the experts think? I spoke to Dr Matt Davis from the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge:

Matt - Reading and listening involve different senses. Each of these connects to a different part of the brain: things that you  see are processed in visual cortex, at the back of the brain, whereas things that you hear are processed by auditory cortex, which sits on the side of the brain, above the ears.  There are other parts of the brain that also make specific contributions to reading or listening, such as the parts of the brain that control movements of the eyes, or those that maintain attention when listening.

Isabelle - So, the simplest answer to the question is yes – your brain does respond differently in reading and listening, because sensory signals from the eyes and the ears make different portions of the brain ‘light up’.

Matt - But, when it comes down to processing the meaning of written and spoken sentences, we see that many of the same parts of the brain are involved, regardless of where the information comes from. The same brain systems seem to be involved in accessing the meaning of written and spoken words. But understanding what you read requires more than just knowing the words. Comprehending a story requires you to build a mental model of what is going on. Your mental model for the story that you’re reading or listening to is critical for being able to remember it - otherwise, the story would be a series of disconnected sentences that will not linger in your memory.

Isabelle - So, is there any reason to think that listening to an audiobook or reading a book might be better for remembering the story?

Matt - Assuming that comprehension is equivalent in reading and listening, we might expect retention to be similar. However, when a story is difficult to follow – think Dostoyevsky rather than Dan Brown – having the opportunity to re-visit tricky sections could be helpful. In this respect, reading might offer some advantages over listening – readers can easily move their eyes back up the page to re-read text that they misunderstood first time around. At the same time, anyone who finds reading difficult – young children or individuals with dyslexia – might retain more from listening to an audiobook. The additional effort involved in reading the words uses mental resources that they would otherwise need for comprehension and memory.

Isabelle - So there you go. If you have trouble remembering this explanation, then reading the transcript of our show might help! Thanks again to Dr Matt Davis for that. Next week, we’re figuring out our footprint, with this question from Charlie:

Charlie -  ‘What is the minimum area required to sustain one human being in terms of oxygen and food?’

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