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The Listening Brain and the Reading Brain

Have you ever wondered why listening to an audiobook is such a different experience from reading the same book off the page?

There's the obvious differences, of course. You're taking in the material more slowly, with the full opportunity to savor the nuances of the writer's style and expression. You're listening to another person, not to your own voice inside your head. But modern brain science has something to add to all that, as shown below.

The listening brain

Here's your brain while you're reading silently off the page. Notice how much of the activity is centered in the back of the brain, the visual areas? That's the part of the brain we see with, and of course, we're quite busy seeing when we're reading off the page, so much so that other brain areas have less to do.

The reading brain

Here's your brain while you're listening to an audiobook. Notice how much of the brain's activity distributed around many areas, not just the visual areas? Those are the parts of the brain where emotion, judgement, appreciation of beauty, and many other brain functions occur. Of course, those things occur when we read off the page as well--but we can see that the proportional activity is very different.

Of course, there's a lot more going on than two brain scans can show. However, isn't it interesting that the two experiences are so different--even at the physiological level in the brain? It's clear that two different experiences are involved, and two different kinds of responses.

Of course, any audiobook fanatic would tell you that!

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