There’s no other feeling quite like putting on your headphones and escaping from the world. With sound as your companion, it’s easier to kill time on your commute, make light work of chores and exercise, or simply enjoy some downtime.
Whether it’s listening to music or to audio stories, many of us use sound to help shape and reflect how we feel. Audio stories in particular – whether that’s audiobooks or podcasts – can have a significant impact on our moods, behaviour and emotions.
The power of audio stories
As one of the pioneers of neuromarketing, Professor Gemma Calvert has extensive knowledge about neuroscience and psychology. She notes that all stories – whether they’re read, watched or listened to – can help stimulate and activate the brain. However, Professor Calvert also says there are “some marked differences in the way in which audio stories engage the brain.”
“In one study,” she says, “people found that when they were listening to a story (rather than reading it) they generated more vivid images in their mind about the fictional landscape and the characters in it.”
The study also compared the difference between listening to stories on their own and watching video footage alongside the story. It found that the areas of the brain involved in imagining visual concepts were far more active when people listened to narratives compared to watching video footage.
“When we listen to audio stories,” explains Professor Calvert, “the brain is constantly constructing its own images of the scenes and characters in our minds, so we interpret what we hear based on our own unique set of memories and experiences.”
Releasing those feel-good chemicals
As well as stimulating our imaginations, audio stories encourage the release of dopamine and serotonin in the brain. These feel-good chemicals are associated with pleasurable experiences such as being in love or eating chocolate.
With our pleasure centre engaged, listening to stories stimulates the brain in other fascinating ways. Professor Calvert points to a study by Paul J. Zak that used MRI brain scanners to find that “when we listen to stories, the brain becomes a literal hotbed of activity, much more so than for many other tasks.”
“Areas involved in attention, emotion and memory actively spark into life,” she continues, “and as the story unfolds, our semantic network – where all our past experiences and knowledges of concepts are stored – becomes increasingly engaged.”
Rooting for the protagonist
When you really love a story, you find yourself getting more and more immersed in the lives of the characters. Your heart races as your heroine narrowly escapes a villain. You shed uncontrollable tears when your favourite character meets an untimely demise. Your blood boils as a beloved character is wronged by a duplicitous friend.
The emotional investment we feel is due, in part, to the brain synchronisation that occurs when we listen to a story being told. A study by Dr Uri Hasson found that when a person is listening to someone telling a story, the activity in both of their brains begins to align. The listener and storyteller’s brains become locked in synchronous empathy. Similarly, the emotions experienced by the characters in a story are induced in the listener as they hear the story unfold.
A further factor that helps create empathy in the listener is the release of oxytocin in the brain. Often referred to as the ‘love hormone’ or the ‘trust hormone’, oxytocin is released when you consume stories that build-up in tension.
As well as developing empathy, audio stories can “have a dramatic influence on what we do and how we react to the world around us and the people in it,” says Professor Calvert. This is because “listening to stories activates the same brain areas that are activated in real life.” How we feel and react to stories shapes our emotions and reactions in the real world.
“In fact, research has shown that we can partly control how a story impacts our mood and behaviour,” notes Professor Calvert. She suggests that deliberately focusing on particular types of stories can help us stimulate different areas of the brain. For example, if we need to adopt a more empathetic approach to an impending situation – such as speaking to a colleague about a problem they’re causing – we can focus more on the story’s characters and motivations to help boost our levels of empathy.
The perfect podcasts for your mood
Listening to stories can have a significant effect on our moods, emotions and behaviours. It’s important to choose the right story or podcast to help influence or enhance this effect.
For example, if you’re looking to boost happiness, traditional stories that involve a hero and a villain work particularly well. As the tension builds, the hero prevails and the soundtrack soars, our brains are flooded with feel-good chemicals.
Of course, if you’re looking for laughter instead of an epic hero’s journey, a comedy podcast like Hip Hop Saved My Life with Romesh Ranganathan can also help boost a positive mood.
On the other hand, if you want some relaxation, it’s best to find a podcast with a stream-of-consciousness style monologue delivered in a monotone voice. Londonist Out Loud and Fathers and Sons are brilliant examples.
For motivation and inspiration, documentary-style podcasts involving travel and adventure help stimulate the brain. Podcasts like Mountain by Christopher Sleight and Keep Your Daydream ready the brain’s action systems and release adrenaline.
And, for those fateful mornings where you wake up with a hangover, podcasts such as Untold: The Daniel Morgan Murder that feature intense crime or drama stories that transport you to another world can be a welcome distraction from hangover hell.
Finding the perfect headphones
Once you’ve found the right podcasts to keep you company throughout the day, ensure your headphones don’t let you down halfway through a gripping story. The Bose QC35 offers wireless connectivity for easy use, while Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones help block out the outside world so you can completely immerse yourself in your podcast.
 Rodero, E. Stimulating the Imagination in a Radio Story: The Role of Presentation Structure and the Degree of Involvement of the Listener. Journal of Radio & Audio Media, Vol 19, 2012, Issue 1.
 Zak, P. Harvard Business Review (2014). Why your brain loves good storytelling.
 Stephens, GJ, Silbert, LJ, Hasson, U. Speaker-listener neural coupling underlies successful communication. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2010). 107(32) 14425-14430.
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