Justine: To Listen or to Read…That is the Question

audible, audiobooks, justine covingtonIt’s no secret — to my family, anyway — that I’ve been reading more lately. Well, listening more. Since December, I’ve plowed through any number of audiobooks, from Georgette Heyer to Jennifer McVeigh. I’m listening to Reckless by Anne Stuart right now. Last night, I walked the dog (in the heat…it’s hot even at night in AZ) just so I could keep listening to the story.

As I listen, my mind will sometimes wander and I’ll have to skip back 30 seconds or a minute to get what I missed. That got me to thinking about some readers’ propensity to skip, and I wondered if my tuning out was an auditory way of skipping the boring parts.

It turns out that we actually absorb the most information when we read aloud. It requires us to do two physical things: speak and keep our eyes moving on the page (which also makes two different parts of our brain work). When one reads silently to themselves, they’re only using their eyes. And when one is listening, they’re really not using anything.

It’s no surprise, then, that the least likelihood of one’s mind to wander is when they’re reading aloud (which is probably part of the reason why experienced writers tell us newbies to read our work out loud to ourselves). Reading to oneself came second, and simply listening resulted in the most mind wandering.

All of this was discovered by a group of psychologists from University of Waterloo in Ontario and was published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

I take issue with their research methodology, though. They had a group of individuals read a passage on a computer screen, then read another passage (same book, same author) aloud off the computer screen, then listen to a third passage (same book, same author) while staring at a blank computer screen.

I think I can state unequivocally that if I had to stare at a blank computer screen while listening to something, my mind would wander, too, no matter what I’m listening to!

When I read, I just read. I’m not doing anything else. But when I listen, I’m typically doing something rote, like walking the dog, driving the kids to/from school, doing the dishes, folding laundry, and sometimes, like last night, playing solitaire, Dots, or doing a word search on my iPad. So while I’m not making my eyes work, I am doing something physical, making other parts of my body work.

I can recall several times when I got from school to home and I had no memory of the drive. Nothing. Nada. I was so engrossed in the story that everything else just faded into the background. That’s hardly mind-wandering, unless you consider it from the perspective of driving.

And the times when I have lost track of the story? It’s usually when I’m doing something that requires my active attention – say, driving someplace new or switching tasks at home or remembering something important.

I also find that stories where the reader uses a variety of voices are the stories I’m more engaged in (The Unknown Ajax by Georgette Heyer and read by Daniel Philpott is a prime example). It may happen that when you discover a voice you like, or one you know can do thirty different accents, you’ll seek out other books read by the same person.

So when I tune out of the story, am I skipping the boring parts? I don’t think so. I sat in my chair last night for two-and-a-half hours listening to Reckless. I had to skip back only a couple times, and that was because my husband started talking to me or I had to put the dog out. But my mind didn’t wander. I was actively engaged in the story.

My point of all of this is give audiobooks a try. Don’t pooh-pooh them based on “science” alone. It’s something you have to discover for yourself whether or not it’ll work for you.

But if you’re going to be on the treadmill for a half hour, or have a commute to work, or get bored folding laundry or doing dishes, plug in your headphones and escape to another world. You may find it not only makes those unpleasant activities more pleasant, but you’ll be hooked on the story, too.

6 thoughts on “Justine: To Listen or to Read…That is the Question

  1. I suppose we all absorb things in different ways. Jilly, for example, is convinced that she absorbs information less well when she reads on an e-reader, as opposed to in print, because different parts of the brain are involved. I, on the other hand, am just as convinced that it’s just a matter of familiarity and practice and that I now absorb information at least as well on an e-reader. The truth is probably that our brains are probably just wired slightly differently.

    I rarely listen to audio-books for the reason that I often find myself drifting off and missing bits – which doesn’t happen so much when I read. I find it makes me a bit fidgety just to sit with nothing in my hands, so start doing something else while I’m listening and then… of course I find I’ve missed large chunks. But… I have a train journey this weekend (to the RNA conference, no less), so I will download an audiobook and give it another go!

    • I swear by actually doing something when you’re listening to books, whether it’s playing solitaire or Dots or washing dishes or whatever. I can get totally engrossed in a book while driving. But when I just sit and do nothing, I’m more inclined to wander.

      Let us know how it goes on the train and have fun at RNA!

      • Btw, I have (slightly shamefully) perfected the art of reading bedtime stories to my children while thinking about something else altogether (only the boring ones), so even reading out loud is not foolproof!

  2. I don’t listen to audio books; they just don’t work for me. I tried Pride and Prejudice once when I had a long drive, and it almost put me to sleep, which was eye-opening, since I love that book. And then I tried again with a thriller when I had a long daily commute for a while. Didn’t engage me. I never feel like I can give an audio book my full attention, because I’m always driving, but I think that would be true no matter what else I’d be doing—I probably wouldn’t be just sitting on my sofa and drinking tea while I listen, like I do when I’m reading a book. And then I just don’t enjoy the audio book that much, because I’m not concentrating that hard on it. But of course many people love audio books, so it’s great that there are lots of options.

    • Agreed, there are lots of options. And they don’t work for some people. Then again, reading doesn’t work for some people, either (like my husband. He’s not a reader). I don’t think he’s tried audiobooks, but he’s always on the phone when he’s in the car, so I’m not sure they’d work for him, either.

  3. My mother was a great reader, and read to us nightly — not just short works, but longer novels as well, like Mary Poppins and Peter Pan. So, I think I could really like audio books except for the time commitment involved. My limit is about 45 minutes or sometimes an hour. I know I could turn it off, but getting back to it again . . . . Well, let’s just say I like shorter works when I’m listening.

    I have a huge problem doing something else and listening. I can drive in the country, but the clatter of trying to cook or wash dishes and listen is an impossible combination for me. I don’t mind listening to news when driving in town — if I miss a few sentences, I’m just not invested. But listening to something like Garrison Keillor while driving in the city? DANGEROUS! I don’t do it anymore. No accidents, but there were a couple of near misses.

    It’s an interesting idea: is wandering off like skimming in reading? I also tend to wander off during guided meditation (although my current favorites say it’s perfectly OK to do so). I’ve been experimenting lately with NOT listening to anything in the car and letting my mind tackle problems. (-: That’s got its own issues. My theory is that if I think about my problems instead of being distracted, I might get more solved. But my methodology isn’t very good, and I don’t see much of a difference (except that I do get around to thinking more about story rather than just dayjob-related problems).

    Definitely something I need to think more about. I do like the renaissance of the spoken word — not only the ease of audiobooks, but the proliferation of fun podcasts.

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