Healthy Mind

Does Listening to a Book Have the Same Brain Benefits as Reading? Here’s What a Neuroscientist Has To Say

Emily Laurence

Photo: Getty Images; Shespoke
While there aren't exactly a wealth of scientific studies endorsing that binging Real Housewives is good for your brain (clinical trials, get at me), reading is one hobby that has been well-documented to supporting cognitive health. It's up there with doing crosswords and playing a musical instrument in terms of habits brain health experts always recommend people to do keep their mind sharp.

Sometimes, there is nothing better than curling up in your favorite chair with a paperback. But if you want to multitask and read at the same time, audiobooks can be handier. You can't exactly drive or deep clean the bathroom with a book in your hands. But as audiobooks have become increasingly more popular, it does beg the question of whether or not you're really getting the same benefits as traditional reading. Sure, you'll be able to chime in at book club, but does listening to a book require the same brain power? When it comes to the reading versus listening debate, neuroscientist and Biohack Your Brain ($20) author Kristen Willeumier, PhD. has some thoughts.

The brain benefits reading and listening have in common

Most people know that reading is good for brain health, but a lot of people don't know why. "Reading is a cognitively engaging task that requires higher-level cognitive processing integrating written information and language comprehension," Dr. Willeumier says. She explains that reading—and then processing what you're reading—activates different parts of the brain. She says this includes the frontal lobes (involved in cognitive processing, attention, reasoning, reading fluency, and language comprehension), temporal lobes (memory), parietal lobes (language processing), occipital lobes (visually processing the words on the page), and cerebellum (motor control related to visual processing—aka moving your pupils across the words).

"A consistent reading practice strengthens your ability to communicate and will improve your vocabulary, reasoning, concentration, and critical thinking skills while enhancing brain network connectivity. Reading has been shown to promote empathy, social perception, and emotional intelligence, which are cognitive processes that lead to greater longevity," Dr. Willeumier adds. For example, researchers at Yale School of Public Health found that book reading had a 20 percent reduction in mortality in readers versus non-readers.

While the study focused only on physical books and didn't include audiobooks, here's what Dr. Willeumier says reading versus listening have in common when it comes to brain function: In both situations, you are processing information associated with story comprehension. Whether you're reading or listening, your brain is working to connect the pieces of the puzzle, making sense of the plot and attempting to predict what will happen next. But there are some differences in terms of how this information is processed.

Reading versus listening: how the brain benefits differ

"The brain is differentially activated when processing speech versus print," Dr. Willeumier says. She explains that understanding what you're reading activates the left brain (in areas associated with language processing), while understanding what you're listening to activates both (in order to process speech and acoustics).

"With that said, semantic processing of the information occurs in the same cortical areas, whether the input is from reading a text or listening to an audiobook," Dr. Willeumier adds. "Both formats engage multiple brain networks, and while the inputs—visual versus audio—may differentially activate the brain, semantic processing occurs in the same cortical areas."

She also says that listening to an audiobook may lead to developing greater empathy because you're hearing the emotion in the narrator's voice, not just reading it on the page. "Listening to an emotionally-driven storyteller engages emotional circuits in the brain and can heighten the intensity and imagery of the episodes, leading to deeper processing of the narrative and greater enjoyment of the material than experienced by reading a book," she says.

While listening to an audiobook may help more with empathy and making the story come alive, she says reading is a better bet for retaining the information. She points to one study showing that reading was better than listening for actually holding someone's attention and remembering the information.

The bottom line

In conclusion, whether you favor audiobooks or physical books, either way you're doing something that's good for your brain. Dr. Willeumier says what matters more is how complex the plot is.

"Ultimately, whether you prefer to acquire information through listening to an audiobook or reading a written text, it is the content of the information that requires higher-level cognitive processing in the brain," she says. That and actually choosing what you actually enjoy: Doing what makes you happy certainly matters, too.

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