Listening versus Reading the Same Information

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University recently examined differences in brain activity while subjects either heard or read identical sentences. A functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) procedure was used to measure the electrical brain activity during these two tasks.

The findings showed more brainwave activity in the right hemisphere when the person was listening to the sentences as compared to reading the sentences. Second, there was more activation in a portion of Broca’s area, a major speech/language center, while listening to the sentences. According to the researchers, these results indicate a qualitative difference between these two ways of processing information.

Based on these findings, the researchers suggest that listening requires much more processing as well as more memory resources than when processing written text. That is, spoken words are only available for a short period of time and are held briefly in temporary memory storages. In contrast, when reading, a person can control how fast he/she processes the words; and written words can be considered an ‘external memory’ because the text can be re-read.

Reference: Michael, E.B., Keller, T.A., Carpenter, P.A., & Just, M.A. (2001). fMRI investigation of sentence comprehension by eye and by ear: modality fingerprints on cognitive processes. Human Brain Mapping, 13, 239-252.

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This article appeared in a previous issue of The Sound Connection, 2002, Vol. 9, No. 2, page 6.

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