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Print vs. Digital Media: What Does Neuroscience Tell Us?

Posted: September 7, 2019 at 10:56 am   /   by   /   comments (0)

Thanks to the rise of digital communication, our way of consuming information has forever been changed. However, with social media on the rise, and more and more people using the internet to find out information, perhaps now is the time to ask the question – have the changes been for the better? 

The debate between digital and printed media has been raging for years and years, and opinions remain divided as to which format is the better choice. From a marketer’s perspective, the digital movement has provided an abundance of new tools to utilise and help businesses become seen by the masses. However, for teachers, the rise of the internet hasn’t impacted them in the same way, with many students now seemingly disengaged thanks to digital-based distractions. 

Here we look at the science behind the print vs. digital debate, specifically looking at the research that has investigated how our brains perceive each form of media. 

Looking to sell? Print media has the edge. 

Back in 2015, Temple University conducted a study in collaboration with the US Postal Service (USPS) to determine how humans respond to different forms of adverts. Using a combination of eye tracking, core biometrics (heart rate, sweat, respiration, etc.) and fMRI (to image brain activity), the researchers found that, while most participants processed digital content more quickly, they didn’t have as strong an emotional response, or retain it as well as they did with printed media. 

The team also found that physical adverts triggered activity in the ventral striatum – an area of the brain accountable for determining value and desirability towards products. As such, they concluded that printed media signalled a greater intent from participants to purchase what they were being advertised, over digital media alternatives. 

Print requires less brain power

Temple University’s findings correlate with another piece of research from 2015, where a group of Canadian researchers at Canada Post investigated the neuroscience behind how people respond to both digital media and direct mail. Using a combination of eye tracking and electroencephalography (to monitor the brain’s electrical activity), the group of researchers discovered that, of their 270 participants, direct mail was much easier to understand, requiring 21% less cognitive effort to process. This meant that printed direct mail was better at getting the message across, since participants were able to process the information more quickly. 

Moving away from the marketing side of things, Canada Post’s findings correspond with that of a Norwegian study, comparing the way in which our brains process the words we read on paper against the words we read on screen. This study, which included 72 tenth graders from two different Norway-based primary schools, found that students who read text in a printed format better retained information, significantly outperforming students who read the same texts digitally. This finding is potentially due to screen-based reading being characterised by spending more time browsing and scanning text, selectively looking for keywords, rather than reading the words in detail. Consequently, digital media appears to be less attention-grabbing than that of printed media’s specifically tailored design

Digital can improve grades

However, that’s not to say digital media is without its merits. In fact, a study by the University of California Irvine found the exact opposite trend to be true; digital media actually improved the grade scores of their iMedEd program’s medical students. 

During the four-year study, researchers at the University of California gave tablets to the 2010 influx of medical students, telling them to use them as an education tool throughout. When they completed the program in 2014, the researchers collected the students’ grade scores and compared them against previous year students with comparable GPA and MCAT scores. They found that medical students taught with tablets scored 23% higher on their grades than those taught using traditional print-based methods, before concluding the study by saying that digital media better resonated with younger audiences. 


Looking at the research, it’s difficult to determine which of digital and printed media is better, as both offer their various advantages. It really comes down to the profession you work in and what you’re looking to achieve from the form of media you use. If you’re a marketer, for example, print media seems to offer a slight edge when it comes to conversions, memory retention and information processing. But, if you’re a teacher, while digital media may improve grade scores, it may not grab the attention of your students as easily as printed alternatives forms of media. 

Generally speaking, the debate shouldn’t come down to a choice between print and digital – both forms of media should be utilised together. 

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