Reading, listening and memory

Pursuing some of my recent posts on the idea that listening and reading create different experiences–without making a judgment regarding superiority–a forum on myspace directed my attention to the following study from Carnegie Mellon demonstrating that listening and reading activate different parts of the brain, and especially that listening requires a great deal more working memory–what used to be called short-term memory–in order to do the semantic processing necessary for understanding.

“The brain constructs the message, and it does so differently for reading and listening. The pragmatic implication is that the medium is part of the message. Listening to an audio book leaves a different set of memories than reading does. A newscast heard on the radio is processed differently from the same words read in a newspaper,” said Carnegie Mellon Psychology Professor Marcel Just, co­author of the report that appears in this month’s issue of the journal Human Brain Mapping.

This seems to go along with my general perception in yesterday’s post that in reading to a text we are experiencing a different object of consciousness–in some sense a different work of literature–that we do when we listen to a text. I’m not exactly a phenomenologist, but we might be able to go with this to say that our experiences of texts are how they appear in consciousness. To the degree that listening and reading activate the brain differently, I would hypothesize that the conscious mind is experiencing two completely different “objects,” objects here understood to mean our mental experience of words and their meanings.

First, during reading, the right hemisphere was not as active as anticipated, which opens the possibility that there were qualitative differences inBrain image–Pars triangularis the nature of the comprehension we experience in reading versus listening. Second, while listening was taking place, there was more activation in the left ­hemisphere brain region called the pars triangularis (the triangular section), a part of Broca’s area that usually activates when there is language processing to be done or there is a requirement to maintain some verbal information in an active state (sometimes called verbal working memory). The greater amount of activation in Broca’s area suggests that there is more semantic processing and working memory storage in listening comprehension than in reading.

Because spoken language is so temporary, each sound hanging in the air for a fraction of a second, the brain is forced to immediately process or store the various parts of a spoken sentence in order to be able to mentally glue them back together in a conceptual frame that makes sense. “By contrast,” Just said, “written language provides an “external memory” where information can be re­read if necessary. But to re­play spoken language, you need a mental play­back loop, (called the articulatory­phonological loop) conveniently provided in part by Broca’s area.”

This makes a great deal of sense to me and is consonant with some other things that I’ve read about how literacy accompanies the general atrophy of personal and cultural memory. Oral cultures require much more prodigious uses of memory, and I would suspect that people who train themselves to listen well–perhaps like those who listen to audiobooks!–are also developing memory capacities. At least, following this study, the short term memory would have to become much more exercised and probably developed by the consistent effort to remember the passing sounds and having to fit them together into meaningful units of language.

(Side note along these lines, my colleague who is visually impaired has a prodigious memory of detail of what seems to me to be almost everything. By comparison, I remember vaguely that an idea is found somewhere in a particular part of a book that I underlined at one point).

Following this out, and thinking through my earlier statements that what we need is more careful consideration of what kinds of things are lost and what kinds of things are gained through certain kinds of reading (or listening), we might well say that if we are entering into what is called a secondary oral culture this could signal good things for memory.

At least this would be the case if the culture that’s developing is one that would put a high premium on listening skills. I’m not really sure that it is given the dominance of the visual on the internet and in film and television. Still, it’s and interesting idea. It would be interesting to figure out if people who listen to audiobooks in a regular and devoted fashion show more highly development memory capacity–either short or long term–than those of us who spend more time reading.

This would leave for further study the question of what reading develops in the brain. I suspect it would be something along the lines of analytical skills, but I’m not sure. It also may explain the stereotype of the absent-minded professor. Maybe we really are absent-minded because in being devoted to books our short-term memory has atrophied!

16 thoughts on “Reading, listening and memory

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  3. writingmoves

    Hi. I found this entry while I was thinking about this very issue (we even have the same WordPress theme!). I grew up in the Philippines where there were generally fewer books in circulation and people do comment from time to time about how much conversational detail I can remember. I have a habit of both listening to and reading books that I’m working on. I find that I remember abstract conceptual elements significantly more when I’m reading from the page and tend to remember plot and specific quotes when I’m listening.

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  6. Zeeshan Parvez

    I personally think listening helps memory capacity. Just look at the ancient Arabs. They did not write down stuff. Instead they would orally transmit everything and they were able to memorize entire lexicons. And not to mention the Muslims who memorized the entire Quran via the oral route.

    1. Peter Kerry Powers

      Thanks for your comment Zeeshan. I think there is something to this. I still believe a good bit of my original idea in this piece, but I do think that listening requires different processes that are equally important and require a different kind of rigor than reading.

  7. William Urban

    I disagree with your hypothesis that by listening or reading, that you are experiencing, “two completely different “objects,” objects here understood to mean our mental experience of words and their meanings.”

    In this study:
    the researchers found that while the brain is indeed affected differently for reading and listening for the lower-level processes (the decoding), the higher-level cognitive processes are very highly correlated and assumed to be intertwined.

    Personally, when I read, I read actively, and reread passages as necessary to ensure full comprehension. Yet, when I listen to audiobooks, I listen no less actively. I routinely rewind and replay, multiple times if necessary to ensure I overcome any distractions or impediments. I find no difference in the comprehension, enjoyment, or recall.

    The important part of reading/listening is the higher-level cognitive process that ensures a full comprehension of the text. Ultimately, there is little to no difference to the brain, in those higher-level processes regardless of the method of input. The experience is essentially the same, and the perceived difference is really just a matter of taste.

    If as you suggest, the lower-level process of listening does work short term memory…I guess that is the only real difference and one that I am happy to take advantage of…

  8. michael9murray

    Hi – have only been introduced to this blog. May well be just what i am looking for: I am looking for research into cognitive differences between hearing a text read aloud, and one’s own silent reading of it.
    These are my speculations:
    ‘We can view the text as a woven fabric with recurring motifs; we can also imagine it as a flowing oral sound, textured with recurring phrases. The two produce very different effects. The former exists in a static time-period, there is no development or mutable properties other than the reader’s inner experiences and external interruptions. The latter is full of flux, and whose time-sequence is highly accelerated at points and slower at other points. The working of memory differs also; in the former the reader’s sense of the text becomes one of relatively uninterrupted duration, the reader can go back to clarify an episode, but the intent is on linear accumulation resulting in an end sum. For the latter, memory depends upon tags, on pointers, on pattern and structure to gain a conglomerate sense of the whole; there is no going back to clarify, it is all on what the memory has retained from the moment.
    This also implies the memories of similar structures of tales, and the sense of anticipated repeated known structures. For the listener the listening event is far more active than the reader’s slow build up: active in its own way, especially where the critical and analytical faculties are engaged. There is also the matching of frames and structures, of the added ingredient of the need for interpreting narrative intent – but to a lesser extent than the mental juggling of story-frames and anticipatory scenarios of the listener’s immediacy of time-frame.’
    I am writing a book on chiasmic-structured texts, hence the reference to repeating patterns.

    Any comments, critiques or custard pies all welcome.

  9. Peter Kerry Powers

    Very interesting. Thanks for your comments. I haven’t worked on this project in quite a while (went in to the administration and all thoughts of doing a book in this area went by the wayside). It’s still a fascinating issue though. I have become more interested in it lately in thinking about my Mom and Dad struggling with aging. My father is in the depths of late stage Alzheimer’s, and of course cannot read, and cannot follow conversation. So he can neither listen nor read, in some strict sense. But he still responds to music and until very recently was able to sing songs he had known for decades. This is, of course, not quite the same thing as the issue we are dealing with in terms of reading versus listening, but I think that it is connected somehow. Language seems to get processed all over the brain in different ways depending on how you are doing it. The interesting thing about singing is that there is often a story line, of course, but it does also take place within a repetitive and rhythmic structure. Not sure if this connects at all to your ideas, but I think reflections like this have made me feel that the issues about language processing and narratives are form more complex and nuanced than the either/or structure I originally set up between reading and listening.

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