Commentary & Analysis
Neuroscience and Print: Compiled List of Links
Print and digital communications both have their strengths, but when it comes to comprehension and recall, studies consistently show that information communicated in print is more deeply embedded, recalled with more detail, and creates a more powerful emotional engagement than digital. Here is a compiled list of links on studies on the neuroscience of print, or how our brains respond to print vs. digital communications, listed in chronological order of publication.
By Heidi Tolliver-Walker
Published: July 10, 2019
One of print’s best friends is biology. As has become increasingly clear from the growing body of research, our brains love print. There is something about the way our brains process information on the printed page that is different from that in digital form. It is better understood, more deeply embedded, and is recalled with more detail. It also creates more powerful emotional engagement that translates into purchase intent.
We started to see research in earnest in the late 2000s, and since then, we’ve seen the number of studies grow. It’s called the “neuroscience of print.” Interest in this area of study really started the United Kingdom’s Royal Mail/Millward Brown’s “Using Neuroscience to Understand the Role of Direct Mail” in 2009 and has resulted in a flurry of studies ever since. Both the United States Postal Service and Canada Post have commissioned two studies, each following up on the other, and there have been others, as well.
As the volume of research grows, I thought it would be useful to put links to as many neuroscience studies together in an article as I could. Because research tends to build on itself, I listed the studies chronologically. To avoid gating and other issues with downloading PDFs, I used the links to web pages from which the PDFs to the original reports can be downloaded.
If you know of other studies not mentioned here, please post the links to them in the comments.
“Using Neuroscience to Understand the Role of Direct Mail”
Royal Mail/Millward Brown (2009)
This study, conducted in collaboration with the Centre for Experimental Consumer Psychology at Bangor University, used functional Magnetic Resonance Imagery (fMRI) scanning to understand how the brain reacts to physical and virtual stimuli. fMRI allowed the researchers to look directly at brain activity and see the brain regions most involved in processing advertising. The research is one of the earliest of which I’m aware and seems to have been among the driving forces in interest in further research. I love the brain scans in the report!
“Reading Linear Texts on Paper Versus Computer Screen: Effects on Reading Comprehension”
University of Stavanger (2013)
Another early and foundational study on reading comprehension in children using both print and digital channels. The link to the full report is not available without permission or purchase, but there are plenty of articles citing the material online.
“A Bias for Action – The Neuroscience Behind the Response-Driving Power of Direct Mail”
Canada Post/True Impact Marketing (2015)
This study used electroencephalography (EEG) and eye tracking to check the response of 270 participants. The study focused on ease of understanding and persuasiveness, along with the time needed to absorb the message, created by print and digital channels. It also provides a great synopsis of what neuroscience is and its value in the world of marketing.
“Enhancing the Value of the Mail: The Human Response”
USPS/Temple University (2015)
This research also used a variety of neuromarketing methods, including eye tracking and biometric measurements, to study participants’ initial reactions to both digital and print ads. One week later, researchers used fMRI to evaluate the longer term impact of the ads. The research studied topics such as attention, review time, engagement, stimulation (emotional reaction), memory retrieval and accuracy, and memory speed and confidence, as well as willingness to purchase and pay, created by the two channels.
Here’s a great synopsis of the research from the Neuromarketing blog.
The Communicator’s Guide to the Neuroscience of Touch
SAPPI North America/Dr. David Eagleman (2015)
Written in collaboration with Lana Rigsby of Rigsby Hull and renowned neuroscientist Dr. David Eagleman, this book dives into neuromarketing as well as haptics, the science of touch. While haptics is not the same as neuroscience, it is a complementary field that focuses on the psychology and emotional response of print vs. digital communications for advertising rather than the neurological one.
“Tuned In: The Brain’s Response to Ad Sequencing”
USPS/Temple University (2017)
This is the United States Postal Service’s follow-up to its 2015 study on the neuroscience of print vs. digital ads. This study adds to the research message sequencing, as well as mixed media and single-media environments. To conduct the research, the USPS once again teamed up with Center for Neural Decision Making at Temple University’s Fox School of Business (CNDM).
“Connecting for Action”
Canada Post/Ipsos (2017)
Like the USPS study, this is a neuromarketing look at how direct mail works with digital advertising in integrated campaigns to optimize consumer attention, emotional engagement, and brand recall. How do today’s consumers consciously and subconsciously engage with different forms of advertising media—direct mail, email, display and pre-roll video, specifically? Does sequencing matter?
(Heidi’s note: On the surface, this study sounds like the same study conducted by the USPS/Temple University above. However, I have downloaded both studies, and while both were done at about the same time, seem to cover the same topics, and the releases on them sound nearly identical, they were conducted by different research organizations and appear to be different studies. Coincidence? Coordination? Competition? If anyone knows the relationship between the two studies, if any, I’m all ears!)
The studies above are the ones we hear about most often. However, there are a variety of other studies relevant to this topic (ranging from Masters theses to studies by the Coast Guard) that I don’t see cited as often. They were compiled by Eddy Hagen in a comprehensive but older blog post for Insights4Print CEO. Definitely check out his links.
Did I miss any? If you know of any research that should be listed here, add it to the comments. Let’s keep this list current and growing.