It’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.