It’s been a while since we saw new research on how our brains respond to print versus digital communications. This study just published in the National Library of Medicine once again finds that processing information in print requires a lower cognitive load than processing information on a screen, resulting in improved comprehension. But unlike other studies, this study tells us why. 

Reading is a complex task. It requires multiple areas of the brain functioning together—those supporting visual, language processing, and higher-order executive function. If any one of those three gets disrupted, or functions less than optimally, comprehension suffers.

The study undertook to understand the differences in “brain activation” when reading from a screen compared to reading from a printed paper. Data were gathered using EEGs and analyzed using spectral analyses in brain regions related to language, visual processing, and cognitive control.

Although this study focused on 6-to-8-year-old children, the authors of the report look back to previous research and note that the children and adults do not significantly differ in their reactions to stimuli in such studies.

Position of electrodes used to study the “beta” and “theta” areas of the brain while the children are reading.

The results? Researchers found that screen reading resulted in greater challenges in allocating attention to a given task compared to reading on paper. Also, researchers found a significant negative correlation screen vs. paper reading in the area of accuracy.

Is Multimedia to Blame?

Initially, researchers hypothesized that lower attention levels on screen might be due to multimedia features that requires readers to split their attention. However, citing previous research, the authors noted:

“Screen inferiority was found even with no additional multimedia features….In fact, among adults, less effective processing was found on screens than on paper, even with brief, challenging problem-solving tasks, with 2–3 lines of text, requiring no scrolling or orientation within a page.”

Researchers also cited a previous study of 8-12-year-old children in which print was found to have “greater functional connections” between the regions of the brain responsible for visual processing associated with word recognition and neural circuits associated with visual and language processing. Meanwhile, more screen-based reading time (including smartphones, tablets, and computers) was associated with decreased functional connections between these regions in these same children.

What The EEG Found

Much of this is not new. We have known for some time that reading in print results in greater comprehension and accuracy. For this study, researchers wanted to know why. They wanted to identify the neurobiological processes underly reading comprehension—specifically, the differences in the levels of energy in the higher frequency bands (beta, gamma) resulting in the higher concentration and visual attention associated with print versus the levels of energy in the lower frequency bands (theta, alpha) resulting in the attention difficulties and mind wandering associated with digital.

The study found that greater energy in the lower frequency bands (theta, alpha) associated with screen reading correlated with more daydreaming and less focused attention. (Image created by the author using Imagine AI.)

To do this, the study aimed to examine the neurobiological signatures for screen-based vs. printed reading using EEG. The EEG recording was performed using 64 electrodes mounted on a custom-made cap. For the study, each child donned the cap, and while reading, data was collected. Reading of both texts was followed by a set of reading comprehension questions.

The result? “In line with our hypotheses, printed-paper reading was accompanied by significantly greater energy in the higher frequency bands (beta, gamma) [less distraction, better comprehension], while reading from the screen was related to lower frequency bands (theta, alpha) [higher levels of distraction, lower comprehension]. Additionally, as expected, a greater theta/beta ratio was observed during the screen-based vs the printed-paper condition, which was also negatively correlated with visual attention abilities.”

Translation: When the text is presented to children via screens, the children (and, by extension, adults) daydream more and are less able to focus on what they are reading. In print, they daydream less and focus—and thereby comprehend—more. They are more likely to maintain accuracy in detail.

So there you have it. Print beats digital for deeper information processing—again. It’s neural biology.