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Are Audiobooks Worse than Real Books? Let’s Ask Science.

Rachel Smalter Hall

Staff Writer

Rachel Smalter Hall may be a professional Book Rioter, but she still hangs out in the public librarian clubhouse. Two of her top three loves include audiobooks and knitting, and her favorite song is Cold Hearted Snake as performed by Alyssa Edwards and Coco Montrese on season 5 of RuPaul’s Drag Race. She co-runs a boozy book club in Lawrence, Kansas, in her spare time. Twitter: @rach_smalls Website: Rachel Smalter Hall

As audiobooks become more and more popular, inquiring minds want to know: are they really on the same level as print books? If you listen to a book on audio, will you be able to pay attention to and remember it as well as if you had read it in print? And the question everyone secretly wants to ask: are audiobook as legit as “real” books?

We can all thank science for stepping in and solving another nail biter, because science has spoken and the answer is “No. Audiobooks are worse than real books.”

Or are they? Let’s take a look at a recent study in Frontiers in Psychology.

Reado-Audiobooks-Partners-Simon-Schuster-in-the-Biggest-Audiobooks-Deal-in-IndiaDon’t listen to audiobooks if you want to pay attention,” said the headline at the Electric Literature blog. Fast Company ran a similar headline: “Your brain on audio books: distracted, forgetful, and bored.” Yikes. Both referred to a recent scientific study in Frontiers that argued, “While listening to an audiobook or podcast may seem to be a convenient and appealing option, our findings suggest that it might be the least beneficial to learning.”

The study compared six groups of 36 college students each who were tested on mind-wandering, memory, and interest while reading a passage from A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson. Two of the groups read the passage silently, two groups read the passage aloud, and two groups listened to an audiobook excerpt performed by Bill Bryson. (The researchers also repeatedly emphasized that the study was small and exploratory in nature.)

And the findings? Participants who listened to the audiobook excerpt scored worse in mind-wandering and memory than the other groups. But what hasn’t been played up is that the participants who read silently didn’t do so hot, either. The groups that read aloud far outperformed each of the other groups. As the paper’s co-author Daniel Smilek told Fast Company, “The way we’re thinking about it is that the more your body’s involved in the task, the less likely you are to be disengaged and mind-wander.” So to follow this line of thinking, the realest of the real readers are the ones who mutter quietly to themselves in the corner.

This news is a bummer for audiobook fans like me who’ve suggested that audiobooks present just as rich an experience — if not richer — than reading in print. But I don’t think this study is the last word in the audiobook comprehension debate. I’d like to see a few major changes in methodology before I’ll be ready to crown a winner of North America’s Next Top Book Format.

For one, I’m much more interested in the memory score than the mind-wandering score. The study’s mind-wandering measure is pretty squishy, relying on participants to self-report their perceptions of their own mind-wandering, and I imagine those perceptions can become pretty distorted from format to format. The memory measure, though, seems much more objective, using cold hard science to prove which formats are better understood and remembered. And the study’s findings for memory accuracy already fall within a pretty narrow range, with participants in all six groups scoring between roughly 65 and 70 percent. That’s not a huge difference between groups.

I’d love to see how these results shake out over a larger sample size, and I also want the audiobook quiz to be administered aurally, bonus points if it’s also in Bill Bryson’s voice. A significant disconnect could occur between first listening to the material and then taking a print test as different parts of the brain are flexed.

But the top thing on my wishlist is data from participants who’ve built up some serious active listening skills. Or even a comparison between new and longtime audiobook listeners.

The participants in the Frontiers study were all college students who earned course credit for signing up. So the study has a built-in bias for self-selecting, high-achieving academics who likely excel at the print reading that’s traditionally favored in academic coursework and assessment. It’s no surprise that the results stacked up the way they did.

If you ask any longtime audiobook listener, though — whether they’re a commuter, visually impaired, or just prefer aural learning — they’ll tell you that active listening is a skill that can be developed over time. And it’s a skill that’s often ignored in educational environments, especially when compared to the traditional emphasis placed on reading in print. Audiobook newbies commonly complain that it’s harder to pay attention to audio, but these complaints diminish and often vanish over time.

Before I buy that you shouldn’t listen to audiobooks if you want to pay attention, I want science to take another stab at it and study some readers who’ve spent a lifetime learning how to listen. We might see some very different results.