Listen Up: The Benefits of Audiobooks for Your Heart and Mind

Stacey Megally

Staff Writer

Stacey Megally is a writer, runner, and incurable bookworm. Her writing has been featured in The Dallas Morning News, Running Room Magazine, The Bookwoman, and on stage at LitNight Dallas and the Oral Fixation live storytelling show. When she isn’t knee-deep in words or marathon training, she’s hanging out with her smart, funny husband and their two extremely opinionated dogs. Instagram: @staceymegallywrites

If you’re an avid audiobook listener, then you’ve felt the delicious anticipation of pressing “play” when you’re ready to dive into the next chapter of an audiobook. Convenience is one of the obvious benefits of audiobooks: you can listen anywhere, as long as you have your phone and some charge in it. But can audiobooks enrich your life—and your family’s life—in ways you haven’t considered before?

As audiobook sales continue to rise—up to $1.2 billion in 2019, according to a 2020 press release from the Audio Publishers Association (APA)—research and opinions on the benefits of audiobooks have been popping up in more places than ever. Whether you’re already sold, or still need a little convincing to jump on the listening bandwagon, here’s what experts are saying about the mental, physical, and emotional benefits of audiobooks.

white and red book on brown wooden table; Photo by Distingué CiDDiQi on Unsplash

1. A More Sensory Reading Experience

Remember the way bedtime stories captured your imagination when they were read aloud to you as a kid? Images formed so vividly in your head that you got completely lost inside the story. Audiobooks may just help you relive that kind of magic. In Psychology Today, novelist Sarah Rayner suggests that “audio is one of the most intimate forms of media—listeners work together with the narrator and author to create mental pictures of situations and characters.” 

Of course, nothing brings a story to life better than a good narrator. Daniel Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, explains to Time how a narrator’s “inflections or intonations” help us pick up on certain meaning and emotions. He gives this example: “Sarcasm is much more easily communicated via audio than printed text.”

And if you’re reading a story that takes place in a community that isn’t like your own, a skilled narrator’s authentic regional accent and speech patterns can help sweep you away and into another world.

2. Enhanced Literary Skills For Kids And Teens 

Audiobooks are for everyone, but it takes only a quick online search to find that most experts agree there are extra benefits for children and teens—especially when it comes to developing literacy. The APA’s “Sound Learning Overview” sums it up this way: “Audiobooks build and enhance vital literacy skills such as fluency, vocabulary, language acquisition, pronunciation, phonemic awareness, and comprehension—skills that often boost reading scores.”

So does that mean your kids should be listening alone, or listening while following along with the text? Reading expert Mary Beth Crosby Carroll tells Scholastic that both are helpful. Listening alone can help expand vocabulary, whereas listening while tracking text can “enhance word-recognition ability.”

But don’t be surprised if your kids start listening to—and loving—books above their age levels. The APA explains that young students’ listening skills are “typically a minimum of two years above their reading skills.” Crosby Carroll corroborates this point for Scholastic, explaining that audiobooks allow a child to “delve deeper into complicated topics and listen to better-quality books than she might find at her own level.”

This is especially good news if you’re the parent of a dyslexic student who is reluctant to read. Dr. Joanne Marttila Pierson, a speech-language pathologist, writes for University of Michigan’s DyslexiaHelp: “By definition, dyslexics have average to above average receptive language skills. It is important that students have access to grade-level (and above) texts that will support continued development of their overall language skills.” Dr. Pierson also points out that if dyslexic students can listen to more books that interest them, then they may be inspired to read more for pleasure. 

Kids who are learning English as a second language also benefit from audiobooks. Former ESL instructor Shari Quan-Rios describes her experience of working with a student whose struggle with pronunciation got in the way of her comprehension. When the student began listening to audiobooks while following along with the printed text, she was able to “hear the text read in its entirety with proper pronunciation,” which allowed her to “decipher meaning and learn pronunciation without having to stop reading and concentrate on individual words.”

Best of all, audiobooks let all kids read anytime and any place. Even if your child struggles with reading and is embarrassed to be seen with a book that’s not as advanced as what everyone else is reading, audiobooks give them a safe space to enjoy what they want. After all, as this Scholastic article notes: “With audiobooks, nobody has to know what they’re listening to.”

3. Mental and Physical Self-Care

Yes, audiobooks captivate and inspire us, but can they also help us relax? It seems that many readers are listening to audiobooks to help them fall asleep at night. Rayner writes in Psychology Today that listening to audiobooks reminds her of the comfort she felt when a parent read to her as a child. Audiobooks are also a good choice if you want to avoid the adverse effects of staring at a screen before bed. In fact, listening to audiobooks before bed is becoming so popular that the Sleep Council in the UK is collaborating with Penguin Books to create a series of audio narratives that’s described as “part soundscape, part descriptive narrative, with relaxing sounds and soothing, slow voices to get you into the right frame of mind for sleep.”

Audiobooks can make us happy and healthy in other ways, too. The convenience, it turns out, also helps improve our moods and outlooks on life. The chance to multitask makes us feel more productive and in control of our time. Plus, combining our love of books with tasks we dread—long commutes, chores, and hard workouts—can help boost our positivity. In fact, a good book might even motivate us to get out on the trail more often or stay on the bike for just a few extra minutes. 

The health benefits of audiobooks are especially promising for seniors. According to this study, listening to audiobooks can improve the symptoms of depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsiveness, and more in older adults. Even better, they won’t have to hold up a book or wear out their eyes.

4. Quality Time with Friends and Family

Listening to audiobooks can bring us closer to our kids, parents, spouses, and friends. It’s true that most book lovers relish the solitary escape of reading, but sometimes that passion just begs to be shared. And enjoying audiobooks as a group offers double rewards: quality time while you’re listening, and as the APA points out, “a springboard for conversation about the titles” after the story ends. So gather up your loved ones, get comfortable, and listen together as the stories unfold.

If you’re ready to experience the benefits of audiobooks for yourself, we’ve got tips for finding free titles here and here. And the next time your finger hovers over that play button, you can be excited not only about the characters and settings and what’s going to happen next, but also about the long list of good effects that listening will have on you and the people you love.