You'll be surprised to know what an audiobook can do to your brain while you study
As soon as you saw the word "audiobook," your hypothalamus no doubt went into overdrive going over all the episodes where you saw Homer Simpson listening to one: to enhance his vocabulary, by mistake ("Ooh, a sextet of ale!") or to avoid having to read his wife's book ("The Harpooned Heart"). His writers went even further by showing the title "Audiobook, the Movie" on the marquee at the Springfield theater. A way to lampoon the idea?
Audiobooks have always functioned as a vehicle for communication in American popular culture. Because in the USA, where audio books first saw the light in the '30s as LP records, people have proven to be voracious passive readers. It fits their 'double your time' philosophy: it's 'multitasking' but in an orderly manner.
It appears that the audiobook industry there is still booming. But do the fields of Pedagogy, Psychology, and Neurology attest to their effectiveness? Are they useful for teaching, and do they allow us to understand and comprehend a text like the written word? We must look to science for a definitive answer.
A brief history of the audiobook: from a program to help veterans of war to a product for 'double your time' enthusiasts
In 1935, the Royal National Institute of Blind People in the United Kingdom created a support program for veterans who had lost their sight on the battlefield. The idea was to provide them with resources so that they could enjoy literature. “Typhoon,” by Joseph Conrad, narrated by BBC announcer Anthony McDonalds, became the first audiobook in history. In parallel, in the USA, the American Foundation for the Blind began to develop the technology necessary for popularizing audiobooks for the same reason as the English.
The popularity of audiobooks has been growing as they are used for other purposes (education, self-help, or simply recreational). They have been brought into other cultures, with more or less success, depending on their particularities and the involvement of the publishing world.
In the '80s they became a hit in the USA. The country's obsession with productivity led Americans to incorporate audiobooks into reaching their goals: becoming a business owner or improving an existing business (some even claim to teach you in less than a day), self-help (although they prefer to call it self-development or 'making yourself') or learning languages (even Swahili) while running, driving or going to gym.
Today, not only are they still popular in North America, they have become a mega-industry. It only makes sense that they have aroused the curiosity of the scientific community: Neurologists, psychologists, sociologists, and pedagogues have undertaken research and studies on audiobooks to try to discover whether there is a scientific basis that supports their effectiveness or whether the experience can be just as enriching as reading.
What does science think?
Although learning to read begins by learning to listen, and both skills develop in the logical hemisphere (the left), we must start from the premise that the way we receive information (or what part of the brain works on it) can influence how we process it in the end.
It's the "medium is the message" idea, where the medium is the brain and the message is a written word or a sound that the brain translates into word. From the beginning we are tackling distinct activities and processes.
What happens when we listen instead of reading? Listening and reading involve the same neural networks, as has been evidenced by investigations such as this one. But when listening, our eyes stop focusing on the written word to gather other information: the surroundings. We commit one less sense to the activity. For the brain, this may involve losing vital information.
Since we often listen to audiobooks when doing other activities, the brain is forced to coordinate between them. This is not good for one of the two. However, it also depends on the difficulty of the text.
Publishers, teachers and librarians: another discussion
Publishers retort to these studies by arguing that the effectiveness of audiobooks is a question of “training the ear.” This has been "proven" in other research in which participants took on regular listening sessions. Subjects showed a clear advantage in aspects such as retention capacity, the richness of their vocabulary and their comprehension compared to those who only read. Naturally, the study was published by Tales2.go, a company that develops educational material in digital format to improve these skills in school children. The impartiality of these findings must be questioned at the very least.
Some articles such as this one (published by the American Association of School Librarians) defend its effectiveness in a specific context: to encourage those who have difficulty reading — mainly due to the lack of motivation that leads to inadequate reading comprehension — to advance the development of this ability.
After completing the study, 93% of students who actively participated in their school's Audiobook Club admitted gaining an appetite for reading that they did not have before and considered themselves to be better readers than before the program had begun.
This is the crux of the matter, if they are to be effective. If texts do not reach children when they are on the path of becoming readers, it will be more difficult for them to develop a habit and become avid book consumers as adults. Reading comprehension is the first step.
Especially in the most complicated cases, which can affect the development of this ability. This is where audiobooks prove useful: they are a common resource in therapies for children with dyslexia or ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder).
They say they are also good for listening to novels