This multi-colored brain image shows what brains do when they’re listening to stories.
Learn more about this HERE.
It’s a whole brain workout and its effects seem largely the same whether you listen to a book or read it with your eyes (research HERE).
Stories go right to the heart of personal learners and for dyslexic listeners, it builds on strengths of conceptual understanding, interconnected thinking, narrative, of course, and mental simulations. Being able to listen to a story also frees up working memory, so a person can immerse themselves in a world, characters, or situations without being dependent on one’s reading speed or level.
There may be some people who need to be walking, rocking in chair or doing something that doesn’t take a lot of cognitive work (like knitting or yard work) in order to listen for long periods of time, but whatever it takes, be assured that you’re doing lots of important things with your brain, whether its reflecting or learning the contents of the book, developing your vocabulary, syntax, and executive function, developing your perspective taking and empathy, or enriching your imagination.
DIFFERENCES IN READING BY EAR VS. EYE
Readers and listeners sometimes debate whether one way of consuming a book is better than another, but it’s likely that there is not a single answer for everyone.
Some people prefer listening to print because the work of reading by eye is so great that it’s harder to keep all the information in mind once sentences and stories are decoded. Others may like to listen while reading along, or eye read only because it’s auditory attention and working memory that get overloaded.
I confess I am a sloppy skimming sort of print reader and while I read things, I often don’t get imagery from what I’m reading. Interestingly, though if I’m listening to an audiobook by a good reader (a professional reader, for instance, with a lively voice), I can make vivid images while I hear the words.
If it is possible, it is best to aspire to a certain level of proficiency in both; but if your listening and eye reading are very uneven, then no one should feel guilty that one modality is better than another.
Recently, I read an article by journalist Claire Armitstead where she pondered about where listening made a difference to her interpretation of a novel.
“My most startling recent audio-reading experience, however, was with Colm Tóibín’s Nora Webster. Reading the novel for myself, I found Nora an alienating figure, a mother with little maternal warmth, the flatness of whose life and relationships left me feeling flat too. It was only when I heard Fiona Shaw reading it that I understood the intricacy of Tóibín’s achievement, how he weaves a manner of thinking into a manner of speech, so that a whole era and society are contained in the narrator’s broken reporting of spoken sentences…”
Interestingly, neuroscientist VS Ramachandran has said that “people have been listening to stories for far longer than they have been reading them…. it’s possible that listening to speech (including such things as cadence, rhythm, and intonation) is more spontaneously comprehensible and linked to emotional brain centers – hence more evocative and natural.”
Claire is not alone. Those who read for a living have promoted other benefits to listening rather than reading books.
In The New Yorker, John Colapinto has talked about audiobooks being a necessity when he has to get through a lot of reading in a short amount of time and also when he looks forward to talented actor’s interpretation of characters. When listening to a Hemingway book read by William Hurt, for example, funny and touching parts of the book came to the surface. John also sang the praises of a reader, Frank Muller, who managed to bring all the characters in The Great Gatsby to life.
More recently Farhad Manjoo has been singing the praises of audiobooks in the New York Times. He argues that author-read stories bring added dimensions to the text that help listeners gain “a sense that one is inside the story rather than peering in from the outside.”
Knowing many of the strengths of dyslexic people – that include sensitivity to voice, rhythms, emotions, and the multisensory aspects of spoken literature, we are missing a bigger picture if we see audiobooks as a short cut to avoiding the work of print. If you haven’t tried audiobooks and you are dyslexic, give it a whirl. Most libraries have expanded their audiobook collections since the pandemic. Great resources include public library LibbyApp.
If you’re hunting for great audiobook narrators, check out Audible’s Narrator’s Hall of Fame. Don’t be afraid to try out a speaker from a different country; sometimes a slight accent may be a nice change.