Your Brain on Audiobooks: Distracted, Forgetful, And Bored

Of all the ways to enjoy a book, minds wander most when we’re listening to someone else read it.

An interesting link, some quotes:

"There’s a real distinction between reading and listening that goes beyond any stuffy judgments made by book purists.

Indeed, the evidence suggests that our mode of enjoying a book can alter the way we absorb its material.

The very freedom granted by audio books—inviting the eyes to wander, and then the mind—may make them less intellectually interchangeable with printed ones than some readers would like…"

"Not long ago, a group of psychologists at the University of Waterloo in Ontario investigated the way our minds respond to various forms of reading material.

They had 235 test participants engage with three excerpts of Bill Bryson’s 2003 popular science book A Short History of Nearly Everything.

The participants read one of the excerpts silently from a computer screen, read the second excerpt aloud off the screen, and listened to the third as the screen went blank."

"During each of the three readings, the researchers tested for three cognitive impacts: mind-wandering, memory, and interest. "

“The minds of participants listening to the excerpt wandered significantly more than those reading it silently (which in turn wandered more than those reading aloud). The listening group also scored worse on the memory test than the reading groups did.”

So the basic retention hierarchy put forward is: Reading aloud only>Reading only>Listening only.

This is no different from many other studies, for example here - The way we encounter reading material influences how frequently we mind wander - PMC

The big problem with these studies, of course, is that they don’t include listening and reading as a combined activity for the same content.

Studies that do so, find that listening and reading combined give a greater benefit - Gains to L2 listeners from reading while listening vs. listening only in comprehending short stories - ScienceDirect

So the retention hierarchy, likely, expands out to: Listening and reading simultaneously>Reading aloud only>Reading only>Listening only

But none of this really describes how most LingQ learners actually learn. Which is - using transcribed audio that will be, either, listened to or read first, and then later, reversal of these activities and going through the same material again.

There’s also, likely, a difference between retention beginning a language (where listening dominates) and retention at a more advanced level (where reading dominates).

A beginner hierarchy being more like: Listening then reading>Listening and reading simultaneously>Reading only>Listening only

And a fuller hierarchy, possibly, being: Reading aloud then listening>Reading then listening>Listening then reading aloud>Listening then reading>Listening and reading simultaneously>Reading aloud only>Reading only>Listening only


This is interesting data, and thanks for posting it. But the fact is, for those of us listening to audiobooks for pleasure and for language learning, it’s irrelevant whether it’s the best for retention or not. Most of the time when we’re in “listening only” mode is when listening is really the only activity that we can do. Driving, walking, doing chores etc.

I can never just sit and listen, because if my hands are free and I can read and listen, I will do that instead of just listening. That’s why I have audiobooks that are for “listening only” times (no text easily available in my target language) and I have separate ones that I can read along with the available text when I have “read and listen” time. (then I might re-listen while driving or something).

The reason why we do the audiobook thing is because it’s FUN and “low impact” but high volume input to use as a time hack while doing other things. If I wanted to “study” I would take a class :wink:


Yes, interestingly, the study was for three aspects: attention, retention and interest.

Audiobooks (only, without text/reading) ranked as worst in the first two , but better than reading only in the “interest” category.

Also, agree “listening only time” is a factor.

Agree listening is far more convenient.

Agree better than nothing etc.

It wouldn’t be the internet if we didn’t quibble in agreement :slight_smile:


I want the biggest bang for my time right now, and am finding that reading and listening is key to my progress in Jap and Mandarin - so the article was really interesting, thanks. Though listening to a playlist whilst doing chores etc is so convenient, like Steve says, I hate not understanding everything, plus my mind tends to wander. It’s the most unpleasant activity for me, yet I know that listening comprehension is a core language skill and game changer.

I’m still working out for myself the best way of doing this, which doesn’t seem to be listening only at this stage. I notice when I listen with eyes closed, I can often visualise the printed words in my mind’s eye - characters and all. Same phenomenon occurred I recall when listening to French - I could “see” the printed words, including the unpronounced endings whilst listening - because I’d focused on reading and listening the most.

Since I dislike listening only for the most part, I save audiobook packaged lessons eg Pimsleur, MT, Behind the Wheel or whatever, (not counted for LingQ stats), for dead times like chores. They’re very left-brain, have too much English etc, but there’s no harm putting them to use as a filler. But the bulk of what I’m doing is reading and listening on LingQ.

How about listening for enjoyment? Listening to Balzac or Rai Due while gardening, listening to political interviews from Echo Moskvi or Klub Troiki or a history of Poland while driving…who cares what we retain. It is wonderful. And for better language progress, noticing phrases and structures, it is best to read what we listen to, before or after, in my experience.

This is why i don’t like modern science.

The test is silly - if i’m reading right:

There was no distinction of how interesting each reader found the material and allowances weren’t made in the results for minds wandering based on the fact that they just didn’t find books like Bill Bryson interesting in the first place. This is tantamount to asking an art fanatic with no interest in politics to read the Tory party manifesto and asking him to stay focussed.

The listening came last - there are no allowances made in the results to account for the fact that they might be that used to the material by the third time around that their minds wandered because a third meeting bored them.

It was one test. Was it repeated ?

Control group is tiny.

Allowances made for fatigue ? How much sleep did they have the night before ? Had they eaten prior to the test ?

I wouldn’t put any stock in this study what so ever. Interestingly enough, most modern science ‘studies’ follow a very similar pattern.

I assume this study is for listening to audio in the native language? I listen with a lot more focus when listening to my target language as opposed to when listening to something in my own language. That said, it seems like most people on here listen to their target language whilst doing other things, something I really never do, I can’t keep up with what’s being said when I do that, it gets on top of me and I quickly lose the thread.

For me, there’s something about listening in a halfhearted way like that which gives me a kind of aversion to the language. It just becomes noise to my ears. I guess if you’re quite advanced and comfortable in the language then it’s fine.