Why ‘Non-Audio’ Learners Lose Out


You’ll often find people who say they don’t learn well via audio.

That they need to read a transcript instead to understand something better.

That’s the silliest thing I’ve ever heard.

And there are three reasons why.
1) The way in which we process audio separate from reading.
2) The way in which we ‘sit down’ to listen to audio.
3) So-called ‘audio learners’ find reading as well as audio just as easy.

The way in which we process audio separate from reading.
Till very recently there was this crazy myth that we somehow mishmashed the data and stored it in our brain, no matter if it was audio, or video, or text. That information was information, and it just got stored in one area of our brain. Modern research (because of better measurement tools) have shown that different areas of the brain light up when we listen to the exact words in audio, and another part of the brain lights up when we process video. And then quite another when we process text.

The brain actually creates ‘brain maps’ that make richer connections when it can process greater depth and range. So instead of one source of information, the brain accesses many sources almost simultaneously. And those that stubbornly stick their ‘I’m a reader’ not a listener, are just losing out for their stubborness factor.

But how do we know they’re being stubborn?
Because we know how damaged brains work. So in autistic children for instance, the brain does learn better via audio than learning. But most of us don’t have damaged brains.  We have biased brains. This means we’re not willing to push our brains outside our comfort zone, and hence the brain will do what you get it to do.

The more you avoid audio, the more your brain favours text. It indeed makes you faster at processing text, but gives the text a single dimension. So that which you gain in processing power and speed, you lose in dimension and depth.

Which takes us to the second point: The way in which we ‘sit down’ to listen to audio—and is flawed from the core!

The way in which we ‘sit down’ to listen to audio is exactly the way we read
When was the last time you went for a walk or dusted furniture while reading? You’ve been trained since you were a child to sit in one place and read. So like an obedient 40-year old you sit in one place and listen to audio.

Well, guess what?

Audio is not a medium that is kind to listeners who sit in one place. The brain is able to process words in speech faster than on paper. So when it has to sit in one place and do nothing else, it gets ‘bored.’ You feel sleepy, restless and of course, you sincerely believe audio-learning is not for you.

Audio learning requires movement and action. That’s why we get bored and tired after listening to speakers (even good ones) drone on for two-three hours. The best speakers know the way audio is processed, and hence get you to do stuff, or take breaks. Or whatever.

But I digress.

Because the third point is coming up quickly.

Have you noticed that audio-learners aren’t quite as stubborn?
They’ll happily read a book. Or a document. They don’t need you to take your book and turn it into an audio file. They may prefer audio (because they’ve worked out what we’ve discussed in Point 2), but they have no overwhelming desire to get everything in audio.

Compare this with ‘readers’ and you’ll see a marked difference. ‘Readers’ are militant about transcripts. They’re militant about books. They don’t want to go near audio if they can help it.Yet they have conversations and listen to the radio without any problem. When was the last time they wrote to their radio station or tv station asking for transcripts?

This is why I’m calling ‘readers’ stubborn.
They are so comfortable with speed, that they miss out on true learning.

The point I’m making is that you’re equally capable of learning via audio as text.
And it’s not going to be easy to get outside that comfort zone. Because your brain will resist the move.

So do me a favour. Read that book anyway. Turn your Kindle on, anyway.

But also strap on that iPod and go for a walk and listen to the very same information in audio.  It will do your biased brain as well as your stubbornness a whole lot of good. And keep you both mentally and physically fit!

{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

Bob Janes

An interesting perspective: conversation is very different from listening to an recording; transcripts (or abstracts) of radio programs are readily available – they are called newspapers (or increasingly blogs).

Personally I prefer music on my iPod and I much prefer to scan a transcript whilst I decide if I want to give the time to the recording; I rarely do. Am I militant about that, no I just exercise my preferences.

Does that mean I’m stuck in my comfort zone, maybe – but more likely it is that I know my own learning skills and how best to use them better than you do.

Perhaps, as an alternative to recording audio, you should be honing the writing skills of short pithy prose. To quote Churchill (?) ‘Apologies for the long letter, don’t have time to write a shorter one.


Peter Murray

I find that reading is a lot faster way to acquire knowledge. Audio (and video) is linear and requires you to usually listen (and watch) in sequence and at the recorded (or live) speed.

But then, I find that learning by experimentation can be even faster again. For example, I rarely consult manuals or other training material the first time I am learning to use new software, though I might use them later if I need to understand some advanced features or concepts.

There may be cultural elements to being able to listen well (and learn from it). I’m a Kiwi living in Turkey and the Turks seem to be much more auditory. Literacy may play a role, so might rote learning in school or recitation from an Islamic upbringing but the Turkish culture appears to have a much stronger oral tradition than mine.

It annoys me when an audio lesson shuffles itself into my music playlist.

Having said this, I do agree with you that listening for learning needs to be done with movement and action. I am not excusing myself from learning by listening – it is essential for me to learn the Turkish language.

Where is the audio for this lesson?

Sean D'Souza

I posted this in the Cave at 5000bc.com. Since it’s similar, I’m re-posting here.

Auditory learning is often possible in places where you can’t handle reading. e.g. going for a walk, driving etc. I don’t know. I’m not in the business of trying to change habits. Some people will say they’re better readers than listeners.

And technically speaking, a book is not like a video or audio. It’s close to impossible to jump or scan an audio or video, and it’s very, very efficient to scan a book or written material. But maybe I’m at the wrong end of the debate. Because I don’t really care if I’m an auditory or visual learner.

I just try to make the best use of any possible time I have.

Sean D'Souza

Perhaps, as an alternative to recording audio, you should be honing the writing skills of short pithy prose.

Not sure what you mean by this.

Sean D'Souza

I also recognise the tone of this post was a bit militant. 🙂 I feel strongly about this topic, because I feel people fall back because they opt for one or the other, when both are equally effective–under different scenarios.

If I was strident in my tone, it’s because I really would like to see people use their ‘driving/walking etc’ time more effectively.

Bob Janes

I’ve just found my way back here and reading the responses. The original post was, as you say, a bit militant; and was an opinion piece as it contains no shred of evidence in support of your views.

There is quite a lot of evidence on the other hand, that reading is a primarily visual thinking process for most people (see, for example Baddeley’s(?) research on story recall) and that the construction and manipulation of images happens much much faster than the processing of auditory streams.

Indeed, primarily auditory learners – like my daughter – have major problems with recall, precisely because they have not learned the visual skills that allow them to move around the material easily and flexibly.

Most learning theories – Kolb for example – do stress the need for a variety of stimuli / or experience to embed learning and turn it into a usable skill. From memory though this is more about adding practical experience and reflection than auditory/visual.


PS The short and pithy comment was a bit too short and pithy. I think I had two things in mind: if you can give unevidenced opiononated advice then so can I; and that I find the main problem with audio ‘learning’ material is that it is an excuse for unstructured ramblings that pay little respect to the listener and could, with more time and thought, have been edited to something much more valuable.

Sean D'Souza

It’s not all opinion. I’ll come back with more evidence. But evidence is largely based on what we know right now. As it should be. I’ve written far more about this topic, and will come back to it. A lot of evidence (in other brain related matters) e.g. brain being hardwired has been proven wrong because of new data.

So it’s a bit ongoing.

Karenne Sylvester

Hey Sean,

Not to rain on your parade (followed you over here from a triibbes posting) however I would really recommend you doing some reading on multiple intelligences and learner styles.

Most of your post is opinion based: while it is true that are our brains are fairly plastic and we can indeed learn new tricks, your statement that

“You’ll often find people who say they don’t learn well via audio. That they need to read a transcript instead to understand something better.

That’s the silliest thing I’ve ever heard.”

Is well, truthfully, the silliest thing I have ever read.

With kindness of course!


Somewhere else you have mentioned that you listen repeatedly to an audio clip for learning languages. Which seems to be a ‘proper’ use for audio. Listening over and over so that accent and usage become automatic.

When I listen to, say, an article on the radio, it goes into my short term memory and becomes a ‘piece of interesting information’ to pass on to someone else. Or a provocation to start me looking for further information.

But the trouble with audio is that it goes on – just like a conversation. There’s no time out to reflect or process or make connections to other pieces.

When I listen I doodle. Many speakers have assumed I’ve tuned out – only to find I’m right there with them. Or I create mindmaps for later consumption and work.

The doodling is the least interruptive. Mindmaps cause me to shift to another mental state so I don’t find that helpful for absorbing material.

Raw audio is useful for hearing the speaker’s tone, emphasis, pace. Where there is hesitancy instead of conviction. That can provide insight; more so than with a polished presentation.

I’m wondering if the person who prefers the audio input to the textual could use colours or textures, patterns or emotions, to provide future access to the spoken material. I know that, sometimes, if I regain the emotional and situational state I was in when I heard something I find it much easier to recall.

Thanks for the fascinating post!

Bob Janes

I’ve no doubt about brain plasticity and completely accept that the brain isn’t ‘hard-wired’ in anything but the most basic of activities. But I understood that you were supporting the virtues of auditory learning – by listening to audio – as being ‘universally better’ than learning by reading or, watching or doing, or thing about, reflecting on or writing about. I find this unconvincing in the extreme as a universal truth.

I am quite happy that some people find this a productive way of learning, I am quite happy that it’s a valid alternative to explore, and I have tried it from time to time though with limited success.

For example, right now I am learning InDesign. I’m already familiar with most of the things that it can do from using other software, so I read a book about InDesign. I can look at the pictures to see the result, imagine what I can do and compare and contrast the results with my previous experience. These are – mostly – highly visual processes, I can’t imagine that listening to audio would be anything but a complete waste of time.

Perhaps I’m missing something important but to go back to the beginning: “You’ll often find people who say they don’t learn well via audio. . . . That’s the silliest thing I’ve ever heard”

I beg to differ, but then I’m one of those militant readers – though I don’t think I’ve ever been ‘militant’ about a transcript.

We are of course getting into some quite fundamental areas about what learning is and what is needed to learn. If you are learning facts then arguably the PhotoReading methodology is among the best available. It is definitely not anything to do with listening see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nFGG6zWByhM for example – the ‘learning speed’ is more than 150 times higher than the speed of normal speech, with probably better retention. So one hour of PhotoReading would be getting on for six month’s worth of walking with your ipod for 1 hour a day.

Walter Hawn

You, sir, are wrong about several things, but most glaringly about the ability to process spoken words faster than written ones.

Not at all. A slow reading speed is in the 200 words-per-minute range.

The very fastest speech is in the 170 wpm range — and very few can do that. I am militant about wanting a transcript because: Most people speak badly. Most people speak slowly. I can read a fifty-thousand word transcript in around two hours. To read the same transcript aloud requires about six hours, without error.

Most ‘audio learning’ products are very badly done, riddled with errors and are read more slowly than the 140 wpm standard I used in the above calculation.

To be sure, a professional speaker can infuse words with greater meaning or significance than might be gleaned from the page, but few, if any, ‘audio learning’ products are recorded by professionals. Most are at least irritating and many are simply unlistenable.

Frankly, I was all primed to buy your ‘Brain Audit’ book. I am quite happy to have found this post of yours that exposes your fundamental lack of understanding of mental processes.

Walter Hawn


I’m the first to admit I’m wrong.

And I’m happy to be wrong. And to be corrected. However if you take ONE post and make assessments on my entire mental processes, then you’re technically committing a similar grievous error as me. You’re jumping to conclusions based on your own understanding.

The ‘Brain Audit’ is not connected at all with this singular post. This post is something I believe in. The Brain Audit is an audit system that has been tested worldwide–and worked repeatedly. You have the choice not to buy it, but for you to judge my entire mental processing on this one post is a bit heavy.

One swallow doesn’t make a summer 🙂

Walter Hawn

Responding to your email, requesting that I look again:

I must ask, *why* do you believe in what you’ve said in this post? I have given a few of my reasons for despising ‘audio learning’ stuff. What defense do you show in favor? That you can listen in the car or while jogging?

That may be okay for motivational stuff, but is a very bad idea for factual or tutorial items. Note-taking, which is proven to increase recall of the spoken word (which otherwise is very poor), is impossible, and the concentration needed to absorb factual material will likely interfere with safe vehicle operation or even safe running.

A common rule-of-thumb in the pedagogic field is that any given fact or rule requires around 20 repetitions to be effectively implanted in the brain, available for recall as needed.

Audio learning becomes even more inefficient when it is properly designed (which little of it is) to overcome those barriers. An ‘audio learning’ piece must be extremely redundant, to pound a point home to the listener, and this wastes the time of those who either, a)already know that bit of material, or b)learn it more quickly than the usual listener.

An instruction can be written *once* and the writer can expect the reader to rescan it, to review it, to make a note, and in other ways repeat it, without wasting the time of either party. If the reader already understands the item, it can be skimmed over. If the learning is accomplished more quickly than average, time is saved and boredom averted. In the case of more complex topics, a simple reference to a previous explanation may be needed, but not a full replication of the information, as is often the case in audio ‘learning’ materials.

When a reader needs to recall an item, but does not have it yet fully in memory, the item can be found easily on the written page. Such a recovery is difficult with audio ‘learning’ materials.

I agree that there are some people who can benefit from audio learning. Those who have learning disabilities may be among them. Also among them might be those who are semi-literate through simple laziness or poor schooling. Sadly, some of those are college graduates.

While it is true that learning by way of various media stimulates various parts of the brain, it is equally true that reading and writing greatly stimulates the development of the logical facility, while the spoken word does not have nearly as great an effect in that area.

I stand by my judgment of the validity of your thought regarding brain function and thus doubt the efficacy of your ‘Brain Audit.’


You may be extremely proficient at what you do, and have been doing it for several years, if not decades. To then nudge you towards audio learning may seem an overkill, because you’re comfortable in your learning styles and efficiency.

I truly believe that there’s there’s efficient learning and there are efficient arenas. So efficient learning may well be reading (e.g. I picked up a book the other day, and literally read the subheadlines. It took me a little over 2 hours to finish the entire book. It was indeed full of really basic stuff–for me). If I had to listen to an audio of the same thing, it would have taken me two days or more.

But then if I was doing a major driving trip, or even going back and forth to meetings, that audio may have kept me learning. Of course you see the problem, don’t you? The problem lies in so many areas, that it’s difficult to pin down.

Because now you have audio vs. reading (efficiency)
Then you have audio vs. reading (bias)
Then you have audio vs. reading (arenas or scenarios)
Then you have audio vs. reading (structure).

In efficiency: It’s often easier to scan a book or document than it is to listen to an audio. It’s easier to flip pages of fluff than it is to fast forward. This is because written information is often sub-titled, and has chapters. And also because our brains scan entire lines, even paragraphs at a time. This is how the brain knows when the sentence is ending, even though we’re only starting to read the sentence. So this method of efficiency is unsurpassed.

I’ll come back on the bias, arenas, and reading too.


There’s also an audio vs. reading bias.

This bias doesn’t seem to set in, in our earlier school years, but rather in later years. Humans are reasonably able to learn both by audio, video, text, visual or by actually participating/touching/being part of a live group. And of course the best learning is a mixture of all of the above.

In school we have no choice.
We all have to read.
We read words.
And we see pictures.

Though over time pictures are removed out of the equation, and all we ever see are words. This automatically sets in a bias for reading. This means that you’ll find most people are readers, or can read. And they do so without any problem. The school system ensures that this bias for reading is absolutely rigid. In a visual only system, or an outdoorsy based touch-feel system, we’d grow up with different biases. We’d want to see visuals or touch and feel a lot more. But as a rule, we’re lumped with reading. Which is good, because reading is very efficient.

But this bias kicks in big time when we first run into audio learning systems based on audio books/speeches etc. Audio is not a medium where you can sit still and learn. So when we study through audio, we get restless. And we switch back to our original system of reading. If audio were taught in a movement-based environment, then we may learn and absorb differently.

So the bias is another factor.
And the bias is largely due to lack of structure in the audio+ the lack of movement.


The third part: Arenas or scenarios.

They refer to learning while walking, dusting, driving etc. When you can’t do anything but walk, dust and drive. Now I have nothing against listening to George Strait, the TingTings, Andrea Bocelli or U2 while doing the dusting, driving or walking. It’s just that if you’re strapped for time, or have an urgency to learn, then it’s a very effective way to do two things at once.

Most often I’ll learn languages while on my walk to the beach.
But only when I’m alone. When I walk with Renuka, the iPod goes off.
But sometimes I’ll often just listen to George Strait, Andrea, the TingTingsor U2 (depending on my mood). I recognise that I have to make a choice. Whether to learn (which means a bit of the wind up of the brain) or to listen to music (which is a wind down of the brain)—both which are effective depending on the state you’re in.

But the reason why arenas are important is because often in these arenas/scenarios, there’s an opportunity to gain learning in our time-strapped world. And most often we fritter away this time by listening to some random chatter on radio or TV. I know first hand how hypnotic TV can be. I used to watch upwards of 30 hours of TV every week. So I threw the TV out. Smiley And switched off the radio.

And I get a mininum of seven solid hours of audio learning every week. Sometimes more. And all of this while driving, dusting or walking. Seven hours of audio is like being in a full day workshop every single week (an average workshop only covers about 6 hours of audio/speaking). When you take that across about 40 working weeks of the years, that’s about 40 x 1 day workshops.

But of course, audio has a problem with structure.


Easily the biggest reason why readers are put off by audio is because of the stupidity of audio-based teaching. If you listen to most podcasts, interviews etc. you’ll find they quickly mimic our normal activity. In our normal day to day activity, we tend to speak without any structure. So you and I could meet at a cafe, and talk about thirty different, and highly divergent topics.

Or we could have an agenda. And we’d still be in trouble.

But let’s talk about divergent topics first. Divergent topics will emerge in any conversational scenario, and because audio is so very conversational, most people approach audio without any structure at all. They blah, blah and blah through the audio. So just last week, I listened to one and a half hour of audio, without any specifics and it drove me up the wall. I even found myself fast-forwarding the iPod. And in the end…well, I didn’t get to the end. I just abandoned the last part of the audio. So structure is a big problem. And this structure of delivery alone.

There’s also structure of layout.

In a book, or even a transcript, it’s easy to scan. You can see headlines, subheads, paragraph changes and chapters. Audio files are rarely built that way. They stream into one endless blah-blah that’s impossible to scan or bookmark. So ideally, audio should be built with a structure (such as outlined in the 13 Box System). That way you know the agenda, and there’s little divergence. And it needs to be technically structured with bookmarks or chapters. With today’s technology, this is clearly possible. You can take an AAC file (Mac-based) and give it chapters. Or you can take a file built in software such as Sony Sound Forge and give it chapters and bookmarks.

But of course, the problem lies with then placing the technology on our iPods, computers etc. The mp3 media itself has no bookmark, technical structure system. And AAC won’t work on all media. And the Sony Sound Forget needs appended files to even work. Goof grief! (that’s not a typo).

So audio gets step-motherly treatment, both from creators as well as listeners. And that’s how things are. However, with usage of the 13 box system, and with the possibility of creating manual chapters (we do this on our CDs/DVDs where we indicate where a new part begins. Example: Barter systems 45:10). This indicates to the listener that they can skip to 45:10 and then listen solely to the talk on Barter. Or go to 12:17 and listen to the talk on some other topic.

So yeah, structure is a problem all around for audio.
Text rarely, if ever, has this problem. And it’s natural to have a bias towards more structured systems vs. less structured systems, eh?


Audio learning is also difficult in workshops and seminars. Again, this is a different kind of structural problem.

1) You have to sit still forever and just listen to someone droning on. Ugh!
2) You have to listen to someone who mostly has no structure in his/her speech. Ugh!
3) There’s zero attention to consumption.

And this consumption factor is critical to learn.
So let’s see. Suppose I took all the posts in this topic, and posted them as one big post, would you read it? You might, but it’s hard going. Even when I broke it up into four + one more posts, you still felt the need for air at the end of the reading session. Now imagine you’re in a seminar/workshop.

You’ll get all the four posts + one + any other posts all in one speech.

This not only leaves you gasping for air, but it tires your brain. Your brain tends to latch on to the the earliest concept, and then tries to process it. This takes brain power. When reading this information, you can use that brain power, and power down by going for a coffee, or reading it later, or breaking up the activity a bit. When listening to a speaker, you’re trapped against the wall.

There’s no down time.
There’s no powering down.
There’s no time to stop and underline. Or read a portion again.
There’s no time. Period.
The blah-blah churns on.

This is why people tend to get just one or two things from a speech, and a lot more from a book. Speaking is not structured to teach. It’s designed largely based on our every day activity of filling up every moment with something or the other. But in an every day activity, you don’t have the quantity of information or the ‘newness’ of the information. So processing the speech is easy. In a workshop, almost 50% of the information is likely to be new, different, or differently presented.

And this tires your brain.
The lack of structure.
The volume of information.
The sheer assault of new information.
The lack of control (you can’t underline, bookmark or slow down the speaker).

This is tiring stuff.
And counter productive to learning.

Now you know why audio learning is the step-child of learning, even though it’s just as effective, and just as needed as visual or other types of learning. Yes, the brain does process (and store) audio in a different region from visual or other types of learning. And therefore accesses it differently.


Of course, this may just lead you to summarise: Why bother with audio learning at all? And that’s a valid question.

But if you change the question a bit to “Can we improve audio learning?” then we’re tackling a whole new issue altogether.

Then it gives our mobile society, a chance to learn while on the move.

William DuBay

There was a lot of research back in the 70s that indicated that reading makes use of the same languaging mechanisms in the brain as auding (listening to speech). The research further suggested that one’s optimum reading speed was the same as one’s optimum listening speed and speaking speed. All of this indicated that there was a central process in the brain for language communications. I refer you to Thomas Stitch’s paper, “Auding and Reading,” which reviews those studies.
Has any of the brain-scan research affected this earlier findings? It seems that reading and auding are handled in different parts of the brain, but maybe there are deeper modeling structures involved.

Sean D'Souza

There is a whole story on sound and how humans are very much at the mercy of sound, especially in our early stages when reading is not possible, or not even logical for a baby.

At this stage all learning is sound based. Which is why I find it hard to understand. Michael Merzenich has done a lot of studies on this topic.


Of course this video is an assault of sound. But I’ve transcribed part of this rat-a-tat-a-tat and it’s fascinating what he’s really saying. I wish he’d slow down in the speech itself.

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