Several years ago, with the aim of increasing my daily steps, I purchased a monthly audiobook subscription. With my trainers laced up and earbuds in place, I strode down the street listening to Natasha Pulley’s fast-paced fantasy adventure The Watchmaker of Filigree Street. Before I reached the end of the street, however, I’d pressed replay at least six times.

The plot was intriguing, the protagonist Thaniel engaging, the writing eloquent. But something was happening to Pulley’s words as they entered my ear and were conveyed to my brain. Rather, something wasn’t happening.

I had long known that my learning strength lay with processing visual cues rather than auditory cues, but I was curious to know if I could improve my auditory skills to better appreciate audiobooks. Or would I be like several of my friends who said they didn’t do audiobooks because they found it too difficult to listen to a story?

Reading comprehension is intrinsically linked to sound. We develop the language skills necessary for reading from the first babbles we make as babies. Improving our auditory skills is surely a matter of practice makes perfect, right?

During the second half of the twentieth century, the scientific field of perceptual learning focused on the concept of neuroplasticity – the ability of neural networks in the brain to change through growth and reorganisation. Findings have revealed that many aspects of the brain can be altered, especially during childhood, but also through adulthood.

In her memoir Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness, Susannah Cahalan presented her struggles with a rare form of encephalitis and her recovery. “Our minds,” says Cahalan, “have the incredible capacity to both alter the strength of connections among neurons, essentially rewiring them, and create entirely new pathways.”

Apart from being able to enjoy a book while participating in activities such as exercising, driving a car and completing household chores, there are numerous other benefits to listening to audiobooks. In her article ‘Are Audiobooks Good for the Brain?’, Amy Sachs states that hearing new words can help improve comprehension and vocabulary. “Audiobooks provide unique context clues and intonations,” says Sachs, “that can help readers better understand the meaning and application of specific words.”

Listening to audiobooks allows us to improve our pronunciation and fluency, boost our concentration and attention span, and develop our critical listening, thinking and comprehension skills. With so much to remember about a story – names of characters and places, the progression of events, plot points and sub-plots – listening to audiobooks can strengthen our memory. By extracting the essence of a story, listening to stories is a way of training our brain to think faster and smarter, sharpening our mind.

When the narrator’s voice fills our ears with descriptions of scenes, action sequences and dialogue, our mind is launched into a new world. Our imagination fills in the gaps of the story, embellishing with imagery and ideas. “Our brains are actually more likely to create meaningful imagery when we listen to a story,” says Sachs, “because it allows more room for our brain’s visual processes to kick into gear.”

Do you remember being read to as a child and being entranced with the story? Perhaps you’ve read to your own children or young siblings, nieces and nephews, and seen their faces transfixed as they listen to characters and scenes come alive in their imagination. Being read to allows parts of our brain to relax – especially those parts involved in reading – and instead focus on auditory comprehension and imagination. Those who find reading difficult, such as those with dyslexia and other learning challenges, may retain more of the story when listening to audiobooks.

Audiobook narrators use varied accents, inflections, tempos and emotions to bring a story to life, which enhances the mood of the plot and the feelings of the characters, contributing to an often dramatic and entertaining experience for listeners. As much as I enjoyed reading Sarah Winman’s Still Life in the paper version, listening to actress-author Winman narrate her own story as an audiobook was superb. The voice of Claude, the African blue parrot, will remain with me forever.

I am pleased I persevered beyond my first struggles with audiobooks. They have become an inspirational daily companion.


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