This Is What Happens in Your Brain When You Learn by Listening

Michael Benninger
6 min readOct 8, 2020

As cinemas around the world are closing their doors in record numbers, the theaters in our minds are more active than ever — at least judging by the explosive growth of podcasts and audiobooks.

According to Deloitte, the global audiobook market is on track to grow by 25% this year, while the podcast industry is expected to expand by 30%. And considering that many of the most popular podcasts and best-selling audiobooks are centered around real-world topics, it’s clear that many listeners are turning to audio for education, not just entertainment.

For years, Blinkist has made it easy to consume key takeaways from nonfiction books through your eyes or your ears. But is one method better than the other as far as learning is concerned? The science behind the answer may surprise you.

The Myth of Listening as a Learning Style

At some point in our lives, many of us were taught that different people have different learning styles. Some of us learn best by observing (visual learners), some by listening (auditory learners), and others by touching (kinesthetic/tactile learners). And although many educators still believe this to be true, the theory of learning styles has largely been debunked during the past decade. As it turns out, we each may believe we learn best in a particular manner, but studies show there’s no measurable relationship between our learning preference and our actual performance.

Despite the lack of evidence to support the theory of learning styles, there’s no denying the powerful effect that podcasts and audiobooks have on us. Spoken stories can transport us, transfix us, and enable us to experience something beyond ourselves. Yet even given the indisputable popularity of audio content, some staunch bibliophiles still insist that printed books are superior to spoken ones. But is there anything to that argument?

Putting Print in Perspective

Evidence of written communication dates back to roughly 3,500 B.C., but it wasn’t until nearly 5,000 years later, in 1440, that Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press and reading became commonplace. And while that was almost 600 years ago, from an evolutionary standpoint, it’s the blink of an eye.

Spoken storytelling, on the other hand, has almost certainly been a component of human culture for tens of thousands of years — if not longer. And not only does it precede printed books by thousands of years, but it predates the advent of written language as well. Even some of the oldest stories in existence, including The Epic of Gilgamesh, Beowulf, and The Odyssey, likely began as oral traditions that were passed down from generation to generation long before they were put into print.

Given how long humans have engaged in spoken storytelling, we’re undoubtedly hardwired to listen to tales and repeat them. By comparison, scanning endless lines of text and decoding letters into words and sentences is not an inherently human trait. Reading, in fact, is a skill that takes effort to learn, whereas listening is a natural aspect of our humanity. Furthermore, spoken storytelling is likely to be with us forever, whereas some are speculating that tomorrow’s technology could soon render the written word obsolete.

The Emergence of Audio

The concept of spoken word recordings dates back to 1952 when Dylan Thomas was persuaded to recite some of his poetry into a microphone so his words could be pressed on vinyl. Since then, audiobooks have existed on several forms of physical media, notably cassette tapes and compact discs. Today, however, digital technology has made it possible for audiobooks to break free of a physical form. It’s now possible to stream hundreds of thousands of audiobooks anywhere and at any time from any number of devices.

Early forms of audioblogging existed as far back as the 1980s, but it wasn’t until Steve Jobs unveiled the iPod in 2001 that podcasting rose to prominence. Today, there are more than 850,000 podcasts, with more popping up every day. Furthermore, a recent study found that more than half of all Americans above the age of 12 listened to at least one podcast during the past year. So even though podcasts have only been around for a relatively short amount of time, it certainly seems as though they’re here for the long haul.

The Neuroscience of Listening Versus Reading

So what happens in our brains when we listen and learn through audio as opposed to text? Surprisingly, a 2016 study found no significant differences between reading a book and listening to it. Participants in this study were hooked up to functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanners that recorded their brain activity while they read several hours of narrative stories and then listened to audio versions of the same tales.

The results showed that whether the words were read or heard, they activated the same areas in the brain with the same level of intensity. According to the researchers, the study demonstrated that the information we absorb is interpreted by the brain in the same way regardless of whether we take it in through our eyes or our ears. That’s not to say, however, that listening to audio activates our neurons in the same way as reading text, but regardless of the pathway, our understanding of the material is identical. And in case you think these results are a fluke, a separate study conducted in the same year by a different team of researchers arrived at a similar conclusion.

However, it’s important to note that when it comes to learning about complex topics, research suggests that reading is more effective than listening. When the goal is to acquire detailed information — and not merely enjoy entertainment — it’s sometimes necessary to slow down and spend more time on a single sentence. And the more challenging the subject matter is, the more time we need to stop and focus on the message before moving on.

The Advantages of Audio

While some snobby readers may look down their noses at aficionados of audiobooks, there are numerous advantages of listening to fiction and nonfiction that text devotees miss out on or overlook.

The Engaging Narrators

Perhaps the best argument for listening to an audiobook is enjoying the inflections of engaging narrators — especially authors, actors, and comedians who narrate their own biographies. Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime and Michelle Obama’s Becoming are just two examples of audiobooks that allow listeners to hear every emphasized word and each sarcastic intonation precisely as the author intended.

Escape from the Mundane

While the debate about humans’ ability to truly multitask continues to rage on, it’s hard to argue that listening to audiobooks and podcasts can’t bring enjoyment to your life when you’re doing something that doesn’t engage your mind. Mundane tasks, such as folding laundry, doing the dishes, or driving to work, can become much more exciting if you’re listening to something entertaining or educational at the same time. However, if you’re also trying to focus on something else, it’s unlikely you’ll absorb or retain much of what you’re hearing.

Increased Accessibility

There are numerous examples to support the notion that audio is far more accessible than text. People with vision problems, for instance, will likely get more enjoyment from an audiobook than its printed counterpart. The same can be said for those with dyslexia or other reading difficulties. Also, people who never learned to read or write can still enjoy every word of an audiobook or podcast. Conversely, though, individuals who are deaf or have trouble hearing would likely choose text over audio every time.

The Audacity of Audio

Spoken storytelling is perhaps the oldest method people have used to connect with one another, dating back to when our distant ancestors huddled around campfires. Today’s audiobooks and podcasts are essentially the same tradition but modernized for the Digital Age.

When it comes to learning, text and audio might not be interchangeable in every instance, but audio makes it easy to absorb information at times when text isn’t an option. (Every try reading a book while sweeping the floor or taking the dog for a walk?) And depending on the subject matter and your familiarity with it, audio can absolutely help you understand what a writer is aiming to communicate.

At Blinkist, we believe strongly in the power of audio to make learning more accessible and more enjoyable. That’s why we continue to invest deeply in our spoken content. We also have an exciting audio new project coming down the line, so be sure to keep your ears open for more details coming soon!

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