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We’ve spoken before about ‘real’ books vs eBooks but there’s another highly volatile topic out there that sets reader against reader – is listening to an audiobook the same as reading a book?

We’re not just talking about the obvious difference here as the pedants among us will say that clearly they’re different. No, we’re talking about the often held belief that listening to an audiobook is ‘cheating’ somehow, as if you’ve been in a long term relationship with a paperback and you’ve started stepping out with that shiny new Bolinda title.

You won’t be surprised to know that many scientists are book nerds and so quite a bit of research has been done into this topic. And the outcome of this hotly debated topic?

Erm… well, it all sort of depends on who you ask.

When it comes to technical books, so for study or professional development, reading a physical book aids comprehension. Daniel Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia says, “About 10 to 15% of eye movements during reading are actually regressive—meaning [the eyes are] going back and re-checking. This happens very quickly, and it’s sort of seamlessly stitched into the process of reading a sentence.” This repetition is what helps the brain retain the information read, which is more difficult to do with an audiobook as you’d have to manually skip backwards to listen again.

When it comes to reading for pleasure (or plodding through that novel for your book club that you’re not exactly sold on), audiobooks really begin to shine. Besides the most important aspect of accessibility, the most common tick in the ‘pro’ box is the ability to multitask. For the time poor reader, being able to ‘read’ a book while you’re driving or folding the washing is a huge bonus.

The story can also be enhanced by the narrator’s intonation and inflection, which can evoke a more emotional response to the story. Humour, sarcasm, and excitement can be more easily recognised with an audio recording as opposed to reading text. Of course, the other side of the coin is that a bad narrator can completely ruin a great story so there are both pros and cons.

In 2019 the Journal of Neuroscience published a study titled ‘The Representation of Semantic Information Across Human Cerebral Cortex During Listening Versus Reading Is Invariant to Stimulus Modality’. Other than being an absolute mouthful, the article explains how researchers from the Gallant Lab at UC Berkeley scanned the brains of participants whilst both listening to and reading stories. The long and the short of it is that the same areas of the brain, both cognitive and emotional, were stimulated regardless of the medium of the stories.

At the end of the day, in my opinion, this really is all the proof that we need to state that audiobooks and text books may be different, but they’re just as equal.