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>Walking and chewing gum at the same time

>This story about headphones, etc. being banned from running races makes me think about our various discussions re audiobooks. I wonder why I’m capable of reading a printed book as a discrete activity, but listening to one requires me to either be in motion or playing solitaire or some low-level computer game. I can’t just sit and listen. Are there any neuro-psych types out there who might be able to explain?

I understand the safety aspect of banning headphones from races but the “purity” aspect of it–that real runners are soooo tuned into their bodies and higher power and all–makes me laugh about how similar it is to readers who turn their nose up at book listeners.

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.



  1. Chris Barton says:

    >The way I see it, when you listen to an audiobook while just sitting there, the brain says it’s doing something while the body is clearly doing nothing. It’s an unsettling contradiction that simply cannot be explained or reasoned away.

    Sort of like having a competitive race named after Jerry Garcia.

  2. Jen Robinson says:

    >I don’t know the reason, but I’ve definitely experienced the same thing. I get very sleepy if I try just listening to an audiobook – I need to be walking or driving or cleaning or something while I do it. In fact, listening and walking on the treadmill isn’t quite enough for me, either. I need to be out walking around, with things to look at.

  3. SamRiddleburger says:

    >It’s also odd because listening should require MORE attention, since it’s so difficult to go back and listen to a missed line…

  4. Anonymous says:

    >why ban earphones in races? well, remember Rosie Ruiz in the Boston marathon! perhaps she had a little voice in her ear telling her to turn left at Hereford St. and take the shortcut to the finish line. you had to have been there – but clearly all sorts of uses implied in the ban

  5. >I too am incapable of listening without moving. Is there anyone out there who can truly sit and listen and do nothing else? And if so, HOW?

  6. >Nope, gotta keep moving. And, that’s the beauty of audiobooks for me. If you HAVE to get up and stop reading, then it’s wonderful to be listening while doing so.

    BTW: My top 2 audio book recommendations this year are “Restless,” by William Boyd and “The Woman in White,” by Wilkie Collins (if you haven’t read the 2nd one before).

  7. >Also BTW: I’m all for the Jerry Garcia race. Can we bring the Cherry Garcia?

  8. >My sense is that there’s a much simpler answer: You read a lot faster than you listen. If the audiobook could move along at your normal reading clip, it would be able to absorb more of your mental energy; and children who don’t read fluently would MUCH rather sit and listen to an audiobook than read by themselves, because it’s closer to a pleasurable pace.

  9. Bev. Cooke says:

    >According to my neuro-psych brother-in-law, reading is more “artificial, more abstract and therefore more difficult” and requires more attentive energy. The processing of spoken language is more innate than the processing of written language (which makes sense when you realize we hear and speak before we read and write.)He says “we have almost an innate ability to speak but not to read and write.” He also points out that even so, doing one thing at a time will mean the single task will be done better than two at once – witness the number of accidents related to simultaneous cell phone and car usage.

  10. >”Is there anyone out there who can truly sit and listen and do nothing else?”

    Haha. Yes. Ideally, to my professors, everyone who fills Zimmer Auditiorium for history or biology lecture.

  11. rindawriter says:

    >I’ve nothing against audiobooks EXCEPT when there are alternatives for myself to have…like books lying around, and certainly, I do not sniff up my nose at audio book listeners because then I would be demeaning all the visually impaired folks who listen to audiobooks and what a horror for them if they did not have that resource.

    But it is still different listening to a real live storyteller than listening to an audiobook. Much less passive. It’s the difference between being in the audience with players on the stage versus being in the movie theater audience. It’s much more a whole person involved thing listening to a real person. You get to respond in real time as a listener to a real person tellign a story, and then everyone laughs and smiles or weeps together and it’s real cool, you share with others that way.

  12. Anonymous says:

    >P.S. And while I respect that one neuropsychiatrist’s position, we need to remember and remember well, that neuropsychologists do not all agree on their theorys and that they do have specailizations and may not know everything about another neuropsychologist’s specialization. They aren’t expert in all areas of the field in other words.

    What about people with attention deficit disorder? Or folks who are visual spatial learners?

    I myself do not do well at all doing one thing at a time, particularly if the “thing” is routine and boring. I can’t stay focused on inputting routine data into a computer without also listening to music on or voices in the background. Why? I make too many stupid msitakes. Ordinary things like makign change are a nightmare for me, a mind field. Being a cashier would be disterous. And driving a car far worse. The world should be grateful I don’t drive!

    I’d be better at cleaning toilest frankly–and composing poetry in my head all the while. And it really really freaks people out to see me copy editing away…to Bob Dylan, Mr. Word Man….

    Not everyone’s head works the same way….Thank God, for that.

  13. rindawriter says:

    >I made the above “anonymous: comment, me rindawriter. I pressed the wrong button. I extremely dislike not having my name under my words, you stupid blogging software you! Simplify your buttons, Blogger!

  14. rindawriter says:

    >Likely some of the “world” would be grateful if I didn’t speak either…but…but…but…..too bad!

  15. rindawriter says:

    >And yes…I do stay in business with my copy editing services…thanks…just not in blogging space….whew!

  16. Bev. Cooke says:

    >Granted, rindawriter, but we’re talking general case and in the vast majority of people, and not as a definitive scientific situation – although my bil did mention that tests have been done on multi-tasking vs. single tasking – but not what level of complexity each task has to it. Anyway – Roger asked, and I myself wondered, since I’m the same way, and so I asked my bil for an off the top of the head answer. I like both written and audiobooks, but will pick up a book before I listen to one.

  17. Anonymous says:

    >what an opportunity this blog offers to self-celebrators!

  18. Anonymous says:

    >Well, I guess it takes one to know one.

  19. Roger Sutton says:

    >Blogging always reminds me of what Nora Ephron wrote about her stint in a 1970s women’s consciousness-raising group, where the discussion had devolved into talking about Thanksgiving: “and none of the women were interested in what another member was stuffing her turkey with, she was just waiting for her turn.”

  20. Monica Edinger says:

    >I would have agreed with the need to move while listening until my recent bus tour of Iceland. It did not at first occur to me to listen since the scenery was so spectacular and the guide was often speaking. However, I soon discovered that I was seated behind a couple of compulsive talkers and began listening as a way to tune them out. Worked out beautifully. If the scenery was all-absorbing or the guide spoke, I simply turned the Ipod off. I suppose I was doing something else (watching the scenery), but I wasn’t physically active.

    Having been a competitive distance runner decades ago I found the article fascinating. Like many quoted, I’m divided. I can see it being a problem for the more casual runners if they miss directions and not paying sufficient attention to those around them. However, I can also see how great it would be to help with pacing (I used to have a teeny bit of paper taped to my watch with my split times)and focus.

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