Ok, I’ll confess all from the outset… when it comes to consuming fiction, I love audiobooks. Never used to, but I quickly became hooked when I spent a few years making numerous regular (and very tedious) long-haul flights each year. They are the perfect companion for such a journey. No need to wrestle with those really dumb aircraft “reading” lights (a misnomer if ever there was one!) or try to focus on a wobbly page amid turbulence and, yes, perhaps that one glass of red wine too many for a comfortable reading experience. Just sit back, relax and listen to the soothing actor’s voice telling you a story.
Nothing quite like it and, in no time at all, I found myself not even bothering to check out what movies were available on the in-flight entertainment system. Loading up the iPad with audiobooks became an essential part of my pre-journey preparations. And it seems I am not alone in my love of this fiction-telling medium. Sales of audiobooks have more than doubled over the past five years and those impressive levels of growth show no signs of slowing down. But why are we once again so in love with the spoken word in an era of television, digital streaming and god-knows what else?
A forthcoming paper by Daniel Richardson and his colleagues at UCL throws up some fascinating insights into this perhaps unexpected trend. In a simple-but-elegant series of experiments, Richardson et al compared the experience of listening to audiobooks with the delivery of the same material via other media; notably, the traditional printed version and the TV or movie adaptation. Some of the results were pretty much as we expected – although adaptations on the small or large screen can often be very enjoyable and entertaining, both the printed and spoken versions of the original book were found to be far more emotionally involving and satisfying for the reader/listener. Not just in terms of self-report questionnaire measures either – movies were found to be less involving on a whole range of corresponding physiological measures too, from simple heart rate to more sophisticated EEG measures. There were no genre-specific complications, either. The results held whether the story in question was Pride and Prejudice or Game of Thrones. The really interesting thing, for me, was not just that audiobooks regularly score better than TV/movie adaptations – they also often prove way more involving than reading the original printed versions themselves! But why?
The authors suggest a number of potential contributing factors, such as cognitive and affective load (they’re biologists, by the way), all of which may well be contributing factors. My take on this is much simpler, though… Our brains didn’t evolve to watch movies or television, nor for that matter did they evolve to read. Stories and storytelling are what our brains are best equipped for, facets of human society from the very beginning have played a pivotal role in our survival. It’s through stories that we acquire vital information about our society, acquire essential practical and social skills, and learn how to behave in different circumstances and in different situations.
In short, stories are of huge evolutionary significance and have been so throughout human history. So, why do audiobooks prove so engaging compared to both traditional and emergent media? Simple – they are the modern equivalent of sitting round the campfire, listening to tales skilfully recounted by the tribe’s favourite storyteller. And long may that continue!