A Drop of Ink: To Be Understood, Remembered, Say It In Print

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By Reed Anfinson

Publisher

Those who grew up reading physical books, magazines, and newspapers now find that our preference for them has more value than just nostalgia. 

We not only remember what we read and see in print more clearly and longer, we have a more emotional attachment to it.

To find out why we have better recall when we read in print, researchers at Showa University School of Medicine in Japan looked at brain activity and breathing patterns while reading. They found noticeable changes in our brain waves and an interesting change in how we breathe.

When we read print, we sigh more often – a seemingly little thing with big consequences.

 “Sighing while we read appears to prevent overactivity in the (brain’s) prefrontal cortex, which can interfere with reading comprehension,” Michelle Quirk writes in the magazine Psychology Today.

They also found that the blue light emitted from electronic devices could suppress our sighing, leading to overactivity in the part of our brain that helps establish memories.

Showa’s finding that we have better comprehension and retention of what we read in print isn’t unique. “The vast majority of studies comparing the two reading mediums have concluded that readers simply retain more from reading on paper than they do from an electronic device,” Quirk writes.

Changes in how often we sigh aren’t the only reasons we retain less of what we see online. 

“The collective research shows that digital media have common features and user practices that can constrain learning. These include diminished concentration, an entertainment mindset, a propensity to multitask, lack of a fixed physical reference point, reduced use of annotation, and less frequent reviewing of what has been read, heard, or viewed,” Naomi S. Baron writes in the publication The Conversation. She is a professor emerita of linguistics at American University and author of several books on reading and learning. 

Some have called our digital devices “distraction machines.” They continually have us skimming, looking for the next digital high that keeps us captured. In his book “The Shallows,” Nicholas Carr writes of how the internet rewires our brains. 

Aptly named, the book describes how our hyperactivity on the internet undermines comprehension and recall. “When we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning,” Carr writes.

Researchers looking at the brain’s neural activity as we read on a computer page see it “teeming” with activity. The brains of those who are reading books, or newspapers, appear less active. But lower activity is a good thing, Carr writes.

 “It is the very fact that book reading ‘under stimulates the senses’ that makes the activity so intellectually rewarding,” he writes. “By allowing us to filter out distractions, to quiet the problem-solving functions of the frontal lobes, deep reading becomes a form of deep thinking. The mind of the experienced book reader is a calm mind, not a buzzing one.”

Baron says reading print improves our ability to remember details of a story better, such as when events happened and the color of a character’s hair.

“The discrepancies between print and digital results are partly related to paper’s physical properties. With paper, there is a literal laying on of hands, along with the visual geography of distinct pages. People often link their memory of what they’ve read to how far into the book it was or where it was on the page,” she writes.

Students studied on their recall of information read in print and on digital devices say their memory is better with digital reading. However, testing proves the opposite true. Their scores are higher on what was read in print, Baron writes.

Memories created by reading print are deeper than those developed watching television or videos on digital devices, she writes. 

We also have proof of print’s value from America’s commercial giants.

L.L. Bean recognizes that if it stops sending magazines and relies on emails or its website, you’ll soon forget about them. Eddie Bauer, Cabela’s, J. Crew, and other retailers will eat away at their customer base. L.L. Bean would fade from our awareness despite the numerous emails it sends.

L.L. Beans knows it must always keep its brand fresh in your memory. Their catalog will eventually capture your attention as it sits on your coffee table or kitchen counter. You will page through it, see something you like, and go to their website to buy it.

“Print marketing and advertising is still a key form of communication for businesses looking to target specific audiences in local areas,” an article in Hug of London says. “The latest research shows that people are 70% more likely to remember a brand they see in print compared to online.”

“Localized print marketing such as newspaper adverts, brochures, flyers, and posters are more likely to be seen by the intended target audience than a social media post,” it says.

Print’s physical form gives it longevity. From an exposure standpoint, the weekly newspaper is a daily. It is found on the store counter, around the house, in the library, and in the café every day of the week – its headlines, advertising, and photos catching your eye.

On the internet, studies have shown the average email is seen for less than 17 seconds if it not immediately deleted. Emails set aside to look at later are buried by the next day’s avalanche of new emails – then deleted.

Advertisers also know the psychology of their customers. “Physical material involves more emotional processing, which is important for memory and brand associations,” Roger Dooley writes in a piece for Forbes magazine. “Physical materials produced more brain responses connected with internal feelings, suggesting greater ‘internalization’ of the ads.”

Read print for better understanding, deeper memories, and a more meaningful connection to those you want to reach.