Friday, August 12, 2016

"As Far As Your Brain Is Concerned, Audiobooks Are Not ‘Cheating’"

The Science of UsThis question — whether or not listening to an audiobook is “cheating” — is one University of Virginia psychologist Daniel Willingham gets fairly often, especially ever since he published a book, in 2015, on the science of reading. (That one was about teaching children to read; he’s got another book out next spring about adults and reading.) He is very tired of this question, and so, recently, he wrote a blog post addressing it. (His opening line: “I’ve been asked this question a lot and I hate it.”) If, he argues, you take the question from the perspective of cognitive psychology — that is, the mental processes involved — there is no real difference between listening to a book and reading it. So, according to that understanding of the question: No, audiobooks are not cheating.

His reasoning reveals some fascinating insights about the way the brain makes sense of language, whether written or spoken. But first, consider what that assertion — that listening is cheating — is saying: It suggests that the listener got some reward without putting in the work. Because that does seem to be the typical argument, Willingham said. “It’s not that you’re missing out on something, or it’s not that this experience could be better for you,” he told Science of Us. “It’s that you’re cheating. And so they think you’re getting the rewarding part of it … and it’s the difficult part that you’ve somehow gotten out of.” So that implies, Willingham argues, that to your brain, listening is less “work” than reading. And that is true, sort of — but it stops being true somewhere around the fifth grade. (read the whole thing)


Evi L. Bloggerlady said...

Listening is definitely different than reading, you are processing the information differently. But I have to admit a good narrator can make an audiobook a completely different and enjoyable experience than reading it. Sometimes far better.

What you miss not reading it yourself if creating the image and interpretation of the work on your own. You still create the visual image, but the narration can definitely impact how you interpret it.

ndspinelli said...

Never tried audio books. Don't know why.

Evi L. Bloggerlady said...

nick, they are fabulous when you have a long boring drive.

ndspinelli said...

Evi, I think maybe me having satellite radio is why. If I didn't I bet I would be a big fan. But, why the fuck can't I do both?? Sold, Evi.

My daughter is a nanny and one of the girls is Evelyn but goes by Evi. The kid is incredibly smart. Her great grandpa worked @ Los Alamos on the hydrogen bomb. Dad is an engineer, mom is an MD. She was in 1st grade last year and was doing 5th grade math. The kids go to a private school. They both would be shortchanged in a public school. The younger one Betsy, was in preschool @ the same place. Adrian Peterson, JR. was a classmate. Cute kid. Adrian and my daughter would chat. She says he's very down to earth. He would play w/ the kids in the playground. Another classmate is the son of an OT for the Vikings, can't remember his name.

Leland said...

Agree with Evi. I have an hour commute, and audiobooks make it relaxing. A car cutting you off can often me a few moments extra of a good book. And narrator's performance can make the book, and when it happens, totally ruin the best of books.

Currently rehearing "Never Go Back" read by Dick Hill, who is an awesome narrator.

As for cheating, it ain't cheating. The reason it's considered cheating is when young children listen rather than reading. They need comprehension, but they also need to learn to read. Listening prevents them from learning to read and comprehension. For educated adults, reading is better.

Christy said...

Don't you think people are conflating listening to a book with seeing a movie based on the book?

Dust Bunny Queen said...

I read a lot of books. Several a week. And while I have listened to audio books, I find the audio experience not as satisfying. Very different.

When you (I) read a book you develop an internal picture in your mind of the people, places and things. In addition there is an internal voice which with you read the words. I mean the people have voices in my head and they are different depending on who the character is (man, woman, child, ethnic accents etc) The internal voice of a Omnipotent narrator is also different.

Here is where I have trouble with the audio books. First. The mental landscape of the book takes over my mind. Sort if like a movie being shown in my head. This might be nice if I am sitting in a chair, but LETHAL if I'm driving and listening to the audio book. I lose all sense of my own surroundings and get absorbed into the book.

Second. The internal voice of the character often clashes, sometimes absurdly so, with the voice of the narrator. Morgan Freeman has an awesome voice.....however, in the one book that I listened to, he was reading the part of a small girl child in some parts. It was ludicrous. Morgan Freeman attempting to be a little girl!!!! I couldn't continue.

rcocean said...

I agree that Audiobooks are great when you have to commute or drive long distances. I find listening to fiction much better than reading it. And if its by a really great author like Hemingway or Tolstoy, i can enjoy the language much more than if i speed read it.

OTOH, some books like "Catch 22" are meant to be read. Heller uses a lot of repetition and that's OK if you're reading it at 500 words minute. But listening to it, is absolutely painful. Same thing with "Slaughter house five". After I heard "and so it goes" for the 50th time, i wanted to smash the CD.

rcocean said...

"Morgan Freeman attempting to be a little girl!!!! I couldn't continue."

Yeah, that's a real drawback. I know that one company issued a CD of "The Sea Wolf" and had the women's dialogue done by a female narrator, which made it much more enjoyable.

Some authors are better read by female narrators. Like Henry James.

Dust Bunny Queen said...

nick, they are fabulous when you have a long boring drive

Except when you get absorbed into the story and the mental movie so much so that you forget that you are actually driving. Go into an automatic mode and THEN suddenly realize that you have driven for miles and don't remember a damned thing. Holy Crap!

This has happened to me often on a long boring commute. I've left the town I was coming from and "wake up" when I'm almost at my destination. Hmmmm...... Maybe it isn't the books after all...I'm just easily zoned out. Must be my misspent youth :-D

rcocean said...

I'm currently listening to Game of Thrones and the narrator is VERY dramatic. Which adds a lot to the book. He uses a cockney voice and the clipped Oxford voice and everything in between. Sadly, his women just sound like his men. But George RR Martin doesn't really give his women characters a lot of external dialogue.

Evi L. Bloggerlady said...

DBQ, I concur with you. I did recently get American Gods which had multiple narrators. It helped.

I liked the big reads (I did a post on Moby Dick), which are on line and have a different narrator for each chapter. That seems to help too since you distance yourself from the narrator when they change every chapter.

rcocean said...

"Evi, I think maybe me having satellite radio is why."

If you had to listen to regular commercial radio - you'd be listening to an audiobook tomorrow. Even if you can find something worth listening to, you get 35 of programming to every 25 minutes of news and commercials. Its unbearable.

Leland said...

DBQ, while I will admit to sometimes listening to a book and not remembering the specifics of the drive; I don't think I quite get the mental images you are describing. However, I also tend to seek routes where it won't matter. For instance, they just opened up some HOV lanes into tolls as well. They are one lane, and very little merging. There's not much to do but keep distance with the car in front.

On a related note, helped a lady whose engine blew on Thursday. Bad oil fire burned the back of her car, but managed to extinguish itself before the fire trucks arrived. Still, car was totaled. Book wasn't as exciting as real life in that case.

XRay said...

Never heard an audio book. I can see it useful for a commute, for sure. But as I don't do that anymore I'm not so certain of its utility for me.