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

6 thoughts on “Audiobooks pack a more powerful emotional punch than film”

  1. Very interesting study. It reminds me of my doctoral dissertation on mental imagery and radio ads in 1999. The results showed faster heart rate (internal focus of cognitive effort used to generate mental images) and skin conductance (sympathetic nervous system arousal) during exposure to high versus low imagery radio ads. There was other data I won’t go into here that indicated that high imagery audio engages visual cognitive resources in the mind. I discussed the results in terms of the radio advertising bureau being correct with their old slogan “I saw it on the radio.” However, the pattern of results in the study you reported on don’t surprise me one bit. I only wish discussion of this study would be framed in terms of the Psychophysiological paradigm (see Potter & Bolls 2012 for application to media) that emphasizes physiological and self-report data as distinct indicatiors of distinct/different mental processes. That can help make sense out of patterns of results seem to tell different stories about media use as is the case in this study.

    Thank you for sharing!
    Dr. Paul Bolls
    Director of Media Mind Insights Group
    Center for Communication Research
    College of Media and Communication
    Texas Tech University

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  2. Found this interesting, thank you. I have been ploughing though fiction and, rather less successfully non-fiction, audiobooks since recent changes in my disability mean I cannot now hold a hardcopy book. l hadn’t realised until I read this how often I turn the TV off to listen to a book.

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  3. I can’t say this rings true for me. I’ve found I focus far less on audio books than either print or video to the point that I often need to run them two or three times due to my own personal signal ‘dropping out’. At the end, I would say I’ve experienced the book but I haven’t read it – I haven’t processed the language as written communication, measured the pace of a paragraph in my mind by the the punctuation and flow, been stopped dead by a short, punchy sentence sitting alone in some white space and sat there with it for a moment. Those things for me carry layers of meaning I don’t get from a narrator whose own interpretation is sitting on the surface and masking everything below, but that may be there to some extent in a film where the contextual visuals might be seen to function in a similar way. It feels complex and subtle and to do with the way language is processed, but where reading is problematic audio and film are wonderful ways of delivering stories. I’m just not sure that’s literature, and I’m also not sure how much that matters.

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  4. I wish that Richardson’s group had a text condition and compared audiobooks to both text and video. Most of the research comparing audio and text seems to come from the 70s and 80s (the last golden age of audio(taped) books). Much has changed in the quality of audiobooks since then and the research needs to be updated. I suspect that the granularity of comprehension being measured will be important. While audiobooks might be good in terms of superficial comprehension (recall of “seductive details”) it will perform poorly as compared to textual reading with deep comprehension. The issue of retention will be key too. Audio books are certainly more ephemeral in our memories (personal experience).

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