Neurodivergent – Listening to audiobooks instead of reading

One of my clients came to her session in tears because she had recently joined a book club and when she explained that she was going to be listening to the book rather than physically reading it, her book club really reacted poorly. They made fun of her and said that they were a serious book club and that anybody who listened to books was just being lazy. She was obviously very upset. And so, she asked me, “Is listening to a book not as good as reading it?”

Okay, well, aside from the fact that I think this book club needs to add to their reading list some books on ableism and rudeness, let’s look at what the information says. So there is some research that suggests that you do process information differently when you read physically with your eyes as opposed to listening, and there are various reasons for this. And one of them is that reading is an active activity, meaning, you actually have to put your attention on the material that you are looking at in order to read. However, when you listen to something, there is ample opportunity for you to be distracted. You could have other things happening in your environment, you could be multi-tasking. And for those reasons, it can mean that you miss some things. You don’t take as much information in, because you are not 100% focused on the information that’s coming into your brain.

Well, that is only part of the story. Because that is an explanation for neurotypical people. But when you look at neurodivergent people, especially dyslexics, there is a whole nother element to the story. Neurodivergent conditions like dyslexia affect how your brain processes information. And generally, this happens only when you are reading and not when you’re taking in information that you are hearing. Now, when you’re reading, in order for your brain to be able to take what you’re looking at and interpret that as words, your brain has to do a few things. First of all, it has to recognize that the symbols, letters, represent certain sounds and that each symbol whenever it’s there will always represent the same sound. However, then you have to look at how that symbol lines up with other symbols in a word, and remember all the rules as to how that symbol being next to other symbols affects the sound making it different. Then you have to look at those groups of symbols and how they function with other groups of symbols to form words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, etcetera. Something else that’s really challenging for many neurodivergent individuals is that your brain doesn’t process pattern recognition the same way other people might.

So if you think of how much of reading really is pattern recognition, right? Recognizing words that rhyme, recognizing how common word pairings tend to affect pronunciation… If your brain has a hard time doing that, then every time you look at a new letter or a new word, you are starting from scratch, because your brain doesn’t automatically remember all of those patterned relationships that are a part of reading. So in many neurodivergent individuals, the physical act of reading is so much more taxing than listening, to the point that they might not want to do it. Now, there are successful tactics that dyslexic people can learn to help them read. Many dyslexic children learn tools that will help them in school, etcetera. But, that doesn’t change the way their brains process. It helps them circumvent these challenges that they have, but it doesn’t eliminate them. So the process of reading might still take extra time, and extra effort, and isn’t necessarily something that people would engage in for pleasure, or when they really didn’t have to. So let’s separate ourselves from neurodivergence for just a second and let’s just look at people. People today are very, very busy.

Many of us would love the opportunity to curl up with a good book, but realistically the only time we’re going to be able to read is if we grab a few chapters while we’re washing the dishes or while we’re on the treadmill. Many of us like to maybe even speed up the pace of the book, I love to do this, and so that the pace of what you’re hearing matches the pace that you would love other people to talk. For me, that’s like 1.65 speed. So you can really modify the listening experience to your available time, your preferences when it comes to how you take in that information. So if we say that listening to a book isn’t as good as reading a book, then many of us just would never ever get the opportunity to read. There are also other physical considerations. I have chronic headaches and migraines. So a lot of the time even when I would be primed to read, my eyes don’t open for me to be able to read a book. However, oftentimes I could still listen to something at a very low volume.

And to me the argument that because you are multi-tasking, or you could be distracted when listening to a book means you won’t actually take in that information doesn’t make a lot of sense, because you can always re-listen to a book. The rewind button exists. So if you’re worried about missing certain information then there are ways that you can repeat the process till all of the information is absorbed. I think that by saying that one type of information gathering is good, and one type is bad, you’re really gatekeeping the process of reading. And I think that is just a way to separate people and judge people needlessly. So I think if you have the opportunity to listen to a book, that’s wonderful. There are many, many different platforms that are available for audiobooks. There are lots of different price points. They’re available at places like libraries. There are also lots of different content libraries. You can look at Audible, Scribd, Libro.FM, Libby, just to name a few, and also of course check out your local library. So I think, grab a book, whether that is a physical copy of a book or an audiobook, it really doesn’t matter. And to me, if your book club criticizes your choice, then you should take your ears elsewhere.