Audiobooks pack a more powerful emotional punch than film

GettyImages-869794278.jpgBy Emma Young

Audiobook sales are booming, almost doubling in the UK over the past five years. Some are now sophisticated, being voiced by multiple actors and featuring extensive sound effects. But even single-narrator audiobooks are, it’s been argued, more cognitively and emotionally engaging than print – in part because a listener can’t slow down, as they can with a print book. 

As a writer whose latest psychology-themed novel She, Myself and I is now being produced as an audiobook, I can’t help wondering about the benefits, and the costs. Personally, I like to be able to control my pace through a print book, to re-read sentences or paragraphs that I particularly enjoy or that I don’t quite process properly on a first read. 

However, as Daniel Richardson at UCL, and fellow researchers, point out in a new study, available as a pre-print on the bioRxiv service, “Our oldest narratives date back many thousands of years and pre-date the advent of writing… For the majority of human history, stories were synonymous with oral tradition; audiences listened to a story-teller imparting a tale.” Humans did not evolve to read, so perhaps there’s something primordially special about listening to a story. But, as the researchers go on to write, “in the modern era, video has emerged as a major narrative tool as well.” 

So which is more engaging – video or audio? That’s the focus of the new paper. And I’m intrigued. I’ve also sold TV rights to the novel, and TV, of course, is the medium of mass-appeal. If my book is ultimately turned into a TV series, might viewers become more involved in the story than my audiobook listeners? 

Video offers more information than audio, the researchers point out (while two people both hearing “The house was ablaze” would imagine slightly different things, watching a film showing a house on fire leaves nothing to the imagination.) Oral stories might therefore elicit more engagement, as the listener has to construct a personalised interpretation of the narrative. But because audio is also more demanding than video, is there a bigger risk that listeners will lose interest in the story, and switch off?

To investigate, the researchers asked 102 men and women, aged 18-55, to wear a wrist sensor that captured their heart rate, sweating and wrist temperature while they listened to and watched a series of emotionally-charged scenes. 

These were a mix of audio and film-version extracts from eight works of fiction, including Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown, and Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin. The order of the presentations, and whether a particular story was presented as a video or as an audiobook extract, varied across participants.

At the end of each trial, participants completed a questionnaire that assessed four aspects of their perceived involvement in the story: their emotional engagement; their understanding of the narrative; their attentional focus; and the “narrative presence” (indicating to what extent they agreed or disagreed with “At times, the story was closer to me than the real world,” for example).  

Though the participants reported feeling more engaged in the videos, their heart rates, body temperatures and skin conductance readings were all higher while they were listening to the audio. Increased heart rate was taken to indicate greater cognitive effort (there were no differences in levels of fidgeting between the audio and video trials), especially given the other data: the skin conductance and temperature readings suggested that the participants were more emotionally involved when listening to audio, the researchers argued. 

This paper has not been peer-reviewed yet. And, due to sensor failure, the researchers were not able to gather the full set of physiological recordings for all of the participants (they got electrodermal data for only 62, for instance). But if as this work suggests, people are at a physiological level more emotionally engaged by audio than watching film, this is good news for novelists. People might love watching TV dramas, but, in getting people more involved in a story, the form of the novel – whether in print or audio – reigns supreme. 

Measuring narrative engagement: The heart tells the story [This study is a preprint meaning that it has not yet been subjected to formal peer review]

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is a novelist and Staff Writer at BPS Research Digest

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