The Physiology of Narrative

Consumers' physiological responses suggest that listening to audio books may be more emotionally engaging than watching films or TV.

The Challenge

With smart phones and the nearly unlimited access to TV and movie content on the go, how do you show that audiobooks are still an important medium for narrative? “Audible was founded because we believe deeply in the impact powerful listening experiences can have on hearts and minds" said Audible CEO and Founder, Don Katz. The challenge was to find a way to measure how engaging the audiobook experience is and compare that to other popular mediums like video.

The Solution

Using biometric sensors, ACN measured heart rate and electrodermal activity (physiological signals can reveal cognitive processing and sub-conscious emotional arousal in the brain) in 103 participants (aged 18 – 67) as they listened to audiobooks and watched clips of eight blockbusters and bestsellers: Game of ThronesGirl On The TrainPride & Prejudice, Silence of the Lambs, Great Expectations, The Da Vinci Code, Hound of the Baskervilles, and Alien. Specific scenes from each title were selected based on their emotional intensity, comparative length, and similarity of narrative (i.e. minimal differences in the storyline between audio and video adaptations).

In-depth analysis of participants’ biological data revealed that listening to audiobooks elicited a more intense physiological and emotional reaction than watching a screen. 

“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,” Dr. Joe Devlin, ACN

Interestingly, in the short questionairres they filled out before and after clips, the participants reported that they were less engaged with audio than with video, although their physiological response suggests that the reverse is true. In other words, there was a disconnect between the conscious experience of watching the videos vs. listening to the stories and the sub-conscious emotional one, possibly indicating that although participants find it easier to relate to the story in video form, they engage more deeply when listening to the audio book.

The analysis also showed that 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 audience.

The Result

With these results Audible demonstrated that there are important differences between experiencing a story as an audio book or as a video. 

“This first phase of research confirms what millions of Audible listeners already know—that active and engaged listening can be truly transformational and life-changing”   Don Katz, Audible CEO and Founder

Researchers Involved

Daniel Richardson

Joseph Devlin

Jeremy Skipper

John Hogan

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