Reading boosts IQ. Do audiobooks?
| May 23, 2023 1:00 AM
Reading is a wonderful thing. We learn from nonfiction, but stories also teach, exercise the imagination and expand understanding beyond our own experiences. Reading words on a page requires the brain to make cognitive connections, imagine scenes and create images without the handholding of TV or video. That kind of creative process, small or large, helps the brain develop literally, by forming more neural connections — at any age.
The American relationship with the written word isn’t what it was. If you read more than four books a year, you read more than half of the nation (Pew Research). That’s less than half the rate of 2001, according to Gallup. Various studies indicate we are less informed today and, logic follows, less factually equipped. Go back 50 years, and the difference in average vocabulary and knowledge of current events is even starker.
From early childhood through old age, books make us smarter. According to a vast array of confirmed studies, the more you read, the higher is potential IQ, brain health and physical health. Literacy (which includes writing skills) directly impacts not only what we know, but also how we learn, think, analyze problems, make decisions and get along with others. It also impacts income, employment and job performance.
Book habits also impact health. Reading reduces mental decline in old age by up to 32%, according to National Institute of Aging research published in the July 3, 2013, issue of Neurology. After correcting for other health factors, a 2016 Yale University study correlated book reading with a 20% reduction in mortality compared to non-readers.
That makes America’s declining readership a big concern, for readers and non-readers alike.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, 54% of adults aged 16-74 read below a sixth-grade level. That’s society’s problem; low adult literacy costs the American economy $2.2 trillion per year, according to 2020 Gallup research sponsored by the Barbara Bush Foundation.
As the old saying goes, reading is fundamental.
Publishers and media outlets are trying to address the decline by appealing to the modern obsession with video and sound. We have audiobook apps, websites and devices that read to us. That raises the question: do audiobooks (and audio/video news) provide the same broad benefits as reading it on paper (or Kindles)?
Let’s start with yes. Reading and listening to books share certain brain benefits, says neuroscientist Kristen Willeumier, author of “Biohack Your Brain.” Both require the brain to process information, to connect puzzle pieces, to make sense of a plot (so the more complex the plot, the better).
Yet differences in how it’s all processed do suggest that reading the written word provides higher-level cognitive processing by integrating more elements cognitively, rather than having them delivered. Reading a story instead of listening to it activates more parts of the brain together: the frontal lobes (involved in cognitive processing, attention, reasoning, reading fluency and language comprehension), temporal lobes (memory), parietal lobes (language processing), occipital lobes (visually processing the words), and cerebellum (motor control, moving pupils across the words).
Think of it as getting a total brain workout. Lending an argument to the “no,” or print superiority side.
Then again …
The semantic (meaning and logic) happens with either method. Some psychologists say that listening to an audiobook may also help develop greater empathy via the emotion in the narrator’s voice. Some readers pick up on that from printed words, but others may not. Audio can also increase the intensity of emotions and engage those brain circuits more.
On the other hand, memory studies also indicate that reading print is better for memory retention than listening to the same information (although reading and listening together can lead to the best memory retention — a good argument for live classrooms, but I digress).
Bottom line? Whether you lean toward paper or earbuds, simply “reading” books one way or another is a heck of a lot better for you than skipping both. Dr. Willeumier writes that in both cases, choosing stories with complex plots gives the brain the best exercise.
And you know the old saying: Use it or lose it. When it comes to what seems like a shorter supply of brain power these days, we sure could use it.
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Sholeh Patrick is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.