Paper vs. Digital: The Battle for Your Brain's Attention

The Paper vs. Digital debate is often portrayed as the battle of Old vs. New. It seems that ever since digital entered the arena, print has been repeatedly knocked down like an old, played-out fighter, gaining a sad reputation against the younger, more vibrant computer and mobile screens. For publishing, journalism and direct mail industries in particular, a rematch is in order.

Printed media has shared the ring with its digital counterpart many times over the years. When considering which medium to leverage, cost and ROI are typically top-of-mind for most decision-makers. But there’s another factor that must be taken into account; the undeniable connection humans have with paper. When it comes to processing, internalizing and acting upon information, paper products still reign supreme…and there’s overwhelming evidence to support it.

The Bi-Literate Brain

The rise of the Internet age and digital landscape has had profound implications on every facet of life—from the seemingly endless sharing of trivial things a la Instagram food pics, to the marketing paradigm shifts such as banner blindness. All of this has left us with the question: If people are constantly consuming large quantities of information online, how can the overwhelming majority still prefer to immerse themselves in content via physical paper?

Studies dating as early as 1992 have confirmed that humans use different parts of the brain when reading from paper vs. digital platforms. In essence, information consumed on paper requires the use of “linear reading,” which is the traditional left-to-right, start-to-finish type of reading we grew up learning. It’s the physical, tactile nature of the reading brain.

This is in contrast to the “non-linear reading” associated with online or screen reading, during which we often multi-task and jump between different sections of text, sometimes not finishing one section before the other. (As I write this, I have 4 tabs open at the top of my screen; Word and Excel are open on my task bar and Outlook is prompting me about upcoming meetings.)

Overall, our brains tend to fall back on and prefer the natural, linear way of reading.

Even deeper than the preference of a physical medium is an evolutionary component. The same cognitive structures that evolved for navigation in the physical world, i.e. retracing steps or looking for landmarks to recall direction, have been adapted to accomplish reading and comprehension. Evidence suggests that humans process letters and words as physical objects—this would explain why you are effective at locating a particular piece of information in a printed book, searching and scanning the page for a “landmark” that is familiar to you.

This would also explain why the linear reading associated with physical material is preferred; the same way you retrace steps in consecutive order is the same way the brain most closely assimilates “thought landmarks” for the sake of comprehension.

Paper Wins by Decision

Quite apparently, the relationship we have with paper-reading is so strong, it’s practically built-in. It’s a good thing too, because the benefits of physical paper are numerous:

  • Through matching the brain’s natural preference for tactile, sensory experience, we gain a deeper understanding of the topic at hand.
  • We increase our ability to synthesize ideas; physically taking notes within the margins, for example, forces you to be as brief and succinct as possible.
  • We gain an increased emotional connection and internalization; the actual “feel” of a page informs readers a sense of their position, which reinforces the visual and tactile cues necessary to increase more of an emotional-based understanding.
  • We sharpen our primary linear reading skills, as well as overall reading comprehension skills.
  • It’s a source of brain-food. Reading on paper at least 6 minutes a day has been shown to decrease the chances of Alzheimer’s and other degenerative diseases.

Digital is Down, but Not Out

As evidence mounts in favor of paper for reading, we must still remember that digital consumption of information is important. Under the right setting and with the right discipline, the numerous tabs and applications on our screen can translate to a powerhouse of productivity (rather than an obstacle course of distractions).

And since digital is certainly not going away, understanding the effective ways to engage with digital reading is essential.

When consuming information digitally, using the non-linear brain can:

  • Help to summarize large amounts of information in a shorter time.
  • Add another dimension of learning, with an Internet browser always within a mouse’s reach.
  • Allow you to explore relevant information and add contextual assistance through hyperlinks.
  • Provide incredible tools for drilling down on specific topics or keywords. The search function is forever a game-changer.
  • Increase comprehension. A relatively new technology, the latest generation of e-readers utilizes a type of electronic paper dubbed “E-ink.” This technology can actually replicate the appearance of print on paper, through reflecting light similar to the printed page of a book. The effect is a natural easing of the blink rate and an identical comprehension rate as the paper counterpart. While rollout of this technology has been limited, it will be interesting to see if the digital book industry (which currently comprises 15-20% of all book sales) will make a concerted effort to include this technology.

As with all great dualities, there are benefits and trade-offs in the battle for your brain’s attention. And more times than not, there are instances where the strategic use of both paper (linear reading) and digital (non-linear reading) can create profound economies of scale. Yes—digital is the way of the future and its importance cannot be overstated. However, it seems in the interest of deep understanding and cognition, paper is the champion—and physical, solid, tangible direct mail is here to stay for years to come.

Published on January 20, 2016