Neuroscience research shows audiobooks are more emotionally engaging than film or TV

Neuroscience research shows audiobooks are more emotionally engaging than film or TV

The secret that all audiobook lovers know, is now official: you get more thrills listening to the audio adaptation of a novel than you do from its equivalent on Netflix.

A new study, released today by UCL, has found that people experience heightened physiological reactions, with sronger heart and brain responses, when listening to audiobooks as opposed to viewing screen adaptations of the same works. This is the first time any research has been done looking at whether changing the way a story is delivered changes its emotional impact on us - and the findings are a boon for the already-booming audiobook industry.

In the study, a collaboration with Audible which took over a year, scientists tested scenes from eight blockbusters and bestsellers - A Game Of Thrones, The Girl On The Train, Pride And Prejudice, The Silence Of The Lambs, Great Expectations, The Da Vinci Code, The Hound Of The Baskervilles, and Alien. They tracked the conscious responses of 103 participants aged 18 – 67 to the audio and video clips through a variety of surveys, while measuring heart rate and electrodermal activity with Empatica E4 biometric sensors - two physiological signals that can reveal cognitive processing and sub-conscious emotional arousal in the brain.

“Listening to a story on Audible produced greater emotional and physiological engagement than watching the scene on a screen, as measured by both heart rate and electro-dermal activity,” concluded Dr. Joseph Devlin, head of experimental psychology at UCL and lead researcher on the project. “Though, when surveyed, participants assumed they were less engaged, the biometric sensors indicate otherwise. Having concluded the first phase of our multi-stage study with Audible, it seems as though the heart really does tell the story.”

Audible c.e.o. and founder, Don Katz, added: “This first phase of UCL research confirms what millions of Audible listeners already know—the spoken word enthrals, entertains, inspires and most importantly, moves us like nothing else."

Highlights of the study include:

  • The evidence found with over 99% certainty that audiobooks produced a stronger emotional and physiological response than visual storytelling mediums. This finding was consistent across different stories, and different participant ages and demographics. 
  • Participants’ average heart rate was higher when they were listening to audiobooks by about two beats a minute (mean difference = 1.7bpm).
  • Participants listening to audiobooks also had a higher peak heart rate during the story, by about 4 beats per minute (mean=3.52 bpm).
  • Participants were roughly 2 degrees warmer in their body temperature (1.66°C), and their skin conductance (EDA) was higher by 0.02 microsiemens when listening to audiobooks.
  • UCL’s research team cross-referenced accelerometer data with participants’ heart-rate data to rule out increased movement/fidgeting as a possible explanation for higher heart rates whilst listening to audiobooks.
  • UCL’s research showed that audiobooks produced more consistent patterns of physiological change than films or TV clips, suggesting that the format may give authors better control of the emotional responses of their listeners.

But does it work for Poldark?