Books

This is the incredible way your body reacts to an audiobook

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Susan Devaney
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According to a landmark study, our responses to books are strongest in audio form. 

In this fast-paced world we now live in, reaching for a book can sometimes feel like the ultimate kind-hearted gesture to yourself.

Whether you’re making your way through the hustle and bustle, stuck underneath another person’s armpit on the tube or curling up in bed after a long day, immersing yourself in a page-turner can help you switch off from your surroundings in more ways than one.

However, when you haven’t the room to turn those pages yourself (did we not mention the sweaty armpit?), it’s time to turn to the audiobook. And, as it turns out, there are hidden benefits to doing so: indeed, listening to an audiobook is more “emotionally engaging” than watching TV or film adaptations.

In a landmark study, UCL and audiobook giant Audible, measured the physical reactions of 102 participants, all aged between 18 and 67, to audio and video interpretations of scenes from well-known books such as The Girl on the Train, Great Expectations and A Game of Thrones. To draw a fair comparison, researchers chose scenes that had a high “emotional intensity” – with very little differences between the audio and video adaptations.

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As the participants watched and listened, scientists measured their heart rate and electrodermal activity, then they quizzed them on their responses. Interestingly, responses were the same across different stories, different ages and different demographics.

Even though participants reported that the videos were “more engaging” than audiobooks by about 15%, but their physiological responses proved otherwise. From higher heart rates by about two beats per minute and raised body temperatures of about two degrees, listening to audiobooks provoked a much stronger bodily response.

Which is good news for bookworms because in 2017, publisher sales of audiobook downloads grew 21.5% on the previous year. 

Reaching for a book can feel sometimes like the ultimate kind-hearted gesture to yourself

Dr Joseph Devlin, head of experimental psychology at UCL and lead researcher on the project, said: “One of our predictions was that listening to a book would be more cognitive work because you as a listener are involved in the co-creation of the story, using your imagination. You’re hearing the story but mentally you’re doing all the work, whereas when you’re watching it, it’s more of a passive experience. The director’s imagination has brought it to life. We’d anticipated we might see something in the physiology but we didn’t expect the results to be as clear as they were.”

However, if you’d rather keep things old school with a proper paperback then we won’t hold it against you. But, for us, it’s time to plug in and switch off with another great audiobook.

Images: Unsplash 

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Susan Devaney

Susan Devaney

Susan Devaney is a digital journalist for Stylist.co.uk, writing about fashion, beauty, travel, feminism, and everything else in-between.

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