Audiobook vs Paper Book: Which way of Reading Helps to Assimilate Information Better?

Scientists have found out whether audiobooks are as well received as printed ones. 

Spoiler alert: probably not. But that’s not always a bad thing.

Professor Beth Rogowski at Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania admits that with her love for audiobooks, she always felt that there was some kind of catch in them. To confirm or disprove her feelings, Rogowski conducted an experiment: three groups of people got acquainted with the text of the popular science book about the Second World War “Irresistible” by Laura Hillenbrand. One group listened to an audiobook, another read, and a third read and listened. After that, the subjects were asked to fill out a questionnaire with different questions according to the text in order to find out how well they understood and remembered it.

Book of Discord

Rogowski’s “test subjects” answered the questionnaire in approximately the same way. The experiment did not reveal a significant correlation between the method of obtaining information and the ability to perceive it.

True, Rogowski’s wards used readers for reading. Another scientist, Daniel Willingham, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and author of Growing Children Who Read, believes that e-books may be perceived differently by humans than the classic paper books. Willingham is confident that the audio format is inferior to the next one. He declares that in order to properly assimilate information, a person needs to understand where the text is located on the page. 

Professor Willingham also focuses on the so-called regressive eye movement during reading. When we hold a book in our hands, our eyes constantly return to the read text. We kind of ask the book if we understood the line of the sentence correctly. This unconscious movement helps us perceive what we read much better. An audio file can also theoretically be scrolled back and listened to, but in practice, so few people do it.

Also, while reading and listening to books, our thoughts periodically fly away to some other topics. If you are distracted from the printed text, it is quite easy to find the place where you are “lost”. It doesn’t work that way with audiobooks.

Moreover, even flipping the pages gives you an advantage! While you scroll, the brain rests and assimilates new information. And when listening to the audio, you also cannot emphasize or highlight an important point. 

To confirm his theory, Willingham even conducted his own experiment – he asked one group of students to prepare for the exam using text, and another using podcast and audio lectures. The scores of the second group turned out to be, on average, lower than the scores of their classmates who prepared by books. 

Practice will help

Daniel Willingham does not exclude the possibility that all these “difficulties” can be overcome with practice, because the more often we perform an action, the better we succeed. 

The professor admits that the audiobook has one, but a monumental advantage – humanity has been transmitting and receiving information verbally for tens of thousands of years. And we learned to read, by anthropological standards, quite recently. “When we read, we are using parts of the brain that have evolved for other purposes,” Willingham explains. 

We also get a lot of information from timbre, tone, speech speed. An emotion like sarcasm is also much easier to catch by ear.

Takeaway: If you like listening to audiobooks for fun and entertainment, most likely you won’t notice a significant difference with printed text. Just try not to combine listening with other important things – and do not expect to understand and remember serious non-fixation, dodging in dense traffic. 

But it is better to read complex and important texts on work and study. It will be more true. 

You can also read: Audiobooks: Pros, Cons, and Where to Start

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