“Print lends itself better than digital media to developing the brain by building deep structures in it,” says Dr. Hans-Georg Häusel. “Panorama” met the German psychologist and neuromarketing pioneer, who is convinced that books are better for learning.
“Panorama”: A few years ago, a Norwegian high school conducted an experiment on 72 students in which one group of tenth graders read two texts of 1,400 and 2,000 words in print and another group read them on a computer screen. The results showed that the group that had read the texts in print understood them considerably better. As a neuroscientist, you’re unlikely to have been surprised by the findings of that experiment.
Dr. Hans-Georg Häusel: No, I’m not surprised at all. We simply need to recognize that digital, like every segment, has its pros and cons. However, print is always superior when it comes to deep learning.
Why is that the case?
There are various reasons. The first point is that as soon as you see a smartphone or iPad your brain switches into reward mode. It gets restless. The big problem is that the brain seeks a quick reward and its attention flags. There are studies showing that people who use digital media highly intensively – of course, young people especially fall into that category – develop symptoms resembling those of attention deficit disorders. In other words, when using such devices, their level of attention drastically decreases because they are always craving the next reward. But you need to pay attention in order to learn because you have to concentrate. The second point is that print media are better for the eyes. You have a clearer overview than with, say, a smartphone. You can read better with print.
Does the haptic element of print come into its own even for highly specific tasks such as learning?
Yes, because you shouldn’t forget that our whole body originates from movement. Our brain developed from our body and not the other way round. In other words, our body didn’t grow from our brain. Instead, our brain developed through movement. Our brain is much better at learning things that are associated with movement. When we touch something, our brain switches to a different mode, so our whole perception is significantly better with print than with a small iPad.
What neurological explanations can you offer for why print performs better than electronic media when it comes to comprehension?
We shouldn’t forget that electronic media naturally also have advantages. When it comes to creating things in three dimensions, then you’re better off with digital than with print. For instance, it’s easier for architects to work with a CAD program, but when it comes to deep understanding of (textual or linguistic) relationships in two dimensions – which is what a great deal of learning in school involves – then print is clearly superior.
What’s interesting about the example from Norway (at least from a layman’s perspective) is that even teenagers, i.e. classic digital natives, understood the text better in print than on the computer.
It’s something of an exaggeration, but we can say that teenagers are already a bit spoilt by this whole digital environment. Nevertheless, their brain is forced to pay greater attention (which is always good for learning) by print than if they were using their native medium,
i.e. a digital device. Print is simply more brain-compatible in many cases.
Around the world, ministries of education are debating whether to replace textbooks by laptops or tablets. What’s your opinion on that?
There are various aspects to consider. The content of a book is relatively fixed. You start on page 1 and can turn back in the book. With digital learning programs, you can cater to different levels. For instance, if you can’t manage a sentence in Spanish properly, then you can go back a stage and automatically adjust the level to your learning needs. The digital world is far better for that than a textbook of course. You have to work through a textbook, whereas e-learning programs can cater to your level. That’s why that question can’t be answered with yes or no. It isn’t an either/or scenario. Instead, you need to consider when digital can come in handy and when a textbook is preferable. In my experience, the digital world is better for checking whether material has been learnt, but textbooks are better for actual learning. Print and digital need to be linked in a way that makes pedagogical sense.
What do you think the result would be if a country or school stopped using textbooks?
That's hard to imagine. The children would certainly still learn something, but I think they wouldn’t learn as effectively or as deeply, and wouldn’t understand the connections between information either. There’s no doubt that it’s possible to learn simple things digitally. People also have a totally wrong idea of learning today. A lot of people say that you don’t need to learn so much because Google’s your friend, but that way of thinking is based on a misconception. People imagine the brain is like a hard drive, and if you offload everything, then you can spare the hard drive. That’s a complete fallacy. It’s the other way round. The more we’ve learnt previously (and especially if we’ve learnt connections between information), the better we can store new knowledge. Print lends itself better than digital media to developing the brain by building deep structures in it.
To what extent – and in which subjects – does it make sense to supplement books with electronic media, such as tablets, in schools?
In every subject really. It’s easier to check whether material has been learnt digitally. For example, when you’re learning a language you can click on “repeat”. That’s easier than covering up vocabulary like in the past.
So it’s similar to the language labs that were used previously for language learning?
Yes, some aspects of language labs were already digital. Today there are smart programs instead, which are also a good learning resource.
So would you definitely recommend books for standard learning?
Books are essential and digital is optional. However, if you stick solely to print, then you miss out on the advantages of digital. And if you neglect print and focus only on digital, then you’re depriving yourself of the firm foundations of learning. I’m absolutely convinced of that.
The German psychiatrist and brain researcher Manfred Spitzer says children learn better without computers and refers to “digital dementia”. He goes so far as to postulate that computers make children stupid and reduce their learning ability (“copying and pasting is replacing reading and writing”) and can even lead to irreversible (brain) damage, concluding that they should be banned from classrooms. Do you agree with him?
I like Martin Spitzer because he has a provocative bent, but I think he overshoots the mark somewhat with some of his theories. He says that if people only consume digital media (for eight hours a day), then they are in a state akin to addiction. Drinking a glass of wine in the evening is good, but if you drink three bottles then your brain will be irreparably damaged. The same applies to digital media. The brain changes if you spend hours in a digital environment. Ultimately, it comes down to using technology sensibly.
What do you think would be the result if – similarly to the example of the Norwegian high school – one group of 22-year-old students would prepare for their BA exams solely with print materials and a second group would solely use electronic media?
I don’t think the results would be any different. On the contrary, the more challenging the learning objectives, the more important print is. Academic books are needed for deep learning and going back over material that we’ve learnt. Of course, you can take an e-book with you and learn in the subway. However, I find that although I’m happy to read crime fiction electronically, if I need an academic book, then I don’t buy it as an e-book any longer. I used to do that, but these days I just take a paperback.
Textbooks and other learning materials are just one segment of the printing industry, albeit an important one. However, in numerical terms, daily or periodical print products, such as newspapers and magazines, are of more significance. You commented recently in an interview that “a lot of people are embracing the digital world like lemmings and forgetting about the effectiveness of print”. In what way are print products effective?
We know from both brain research and motive research that as soon as we pick up a smartphone or tablet, our brain switches off because it goes into “goal mode”. The user wants to attain a goal relatively quickly. The brain seeks a reward. That generates a kind of stress.
Is that not the case with print products?
No, it’s quite different when you pick up a printed newspaper or a magazine. Your brain switches into relaxed mode and absorbs content differently.
Does it depend on the nature of the print product?
I distinguish between “control” and “reward” media. When you read a newspaper, it gives you a feeling of control over the world. You need the information to understand the world around you.
Are we only able to understand things if we have control?
Yes, understanding means control – you aren’t at the mercy of the world. The brain seeks causal understanding and when it’s found that, it gets a sense of having things under control. Control media will become almost entirely digital. However, the world of rewards is quite different. With fashion, interior design and lifestyle magazines, the brain switches into relaxed mode, especially when reading something in print form. I can observe that in my two daughters, who are both in their thirties. If we’re at the gas station, they buy a fashion magazine along with their cappuccino and read it at leisure from cover to cover in the evening.
Is that why newspapers are having a tougher time competing with electronic media than magazines are?
Yes, but it depends on how newspapers are put together and how good the editorial team is at producing content that its target groups want to read. If you look at the supplements of major newspapers, then you can see that publishers are increasingly including reward information. In my opinion, that’s the right strategy. It’s increasingly difficult for the actual information section of the newspaper to compete with digital content...
...where articles are often considerably shorter than in print.
The brain’s state of stress is not conducive to reading long digital texts. I only read long texts online if I’m really fascinated by something. Print products are simply better for in-depth information...
...as the example of the school in Norway shows?
Precisely. In everyday life, we don’t need that much in-depth information, but you can forget about the digital world when it comes to understanding broader, more complex social contexts, and causal relationships.
Is print better than the internet or television at evoking emotions?
Print is a multi-sensory environment. You hear the pages rustle and can smell the book. And you’re in action when you turn the pages. TV has the advantage of combining music, images, and motion. Digital, on the other hand, is unsuitable for many messages.
Can you give any examples of that?
If an advertiser takes out an annoying banner ad on a smartphone for a luxury product, then it downgrades the product, because the brain is context-sensitive. That’s why I recommend a major luxury ad campaign in a premium magazine environment.
Do advertising customers and their advertising agencies make use of your scientific findings?
Not all that much. Advertisers are often young people with little idea of how people’s brains work, and such digital natives are too inclined to draw conclusions about others based on themselves. My studies have shown that even young readers have a greater feeling of relaxation with a print lifestyle magazine than with an iPad edition. Even digital natives say that they love to curl up on the sofa in the evening or at the weekend with a cup of tea and magazine.
Is online advertising overhyped?
Yes, to some extent. We need to learn to link the strengths of the different media in an intelligent way. The digital world has a lot of advantages, but print is superior in many respects. Of course, the cost per mile on a Facebook page is a hundredth of what you would pay for an ad in a premium magazine. However, if it’s a question of how your product comes across and what emotions it evokes, then often magazines are your best bet.
You mentioned the successful supplements of daily newspapers. Advertising inserts are highly popular in many countries and clearly go down well with readers. Would you put those in the same category?
Two different psychological mechanisms are in play here. Supplements and advertising inserts are both print products, but supplements have more of a lifestyle character. Advertising inserts with their practical format and haptics convey information that can’t even be processed digitally in that form.
Do you perceive generational differences in terms of media use?
The young, digital generation doesn’t have such a strong attention span. It finds it difficult to work through long texts and understand complexity. On the other hand, young people are better in spatial thinking, creating things in 3D, and multitasking.
Do you think print will stand a chance among young people in the future?
I’m skeptical as to whether they will be keen to read newspapers, i.e. information that gives the reader a sense of control, on paper, but young readers are certainly open to print for topics like lifestyle, technology and fashion in attractive magazines, i.e. when it comes to “reward information”. There will still be children’s books for reading aloud. “The Little Prince” as a bedtime story on an iPad won’t send children to sleep.
Does it increase the education divide if parents give their children tablets instead of books?
We have that divide already. Digital or analog is also a question of education and social class. In houses with books, there’s a totally different way of reflecting on the world. Children need print to really understand things.
That’s where parents come in.
Yes, because people crave rewards, which is why children need supervision. Otherwise, they’ll stuff themselves with hamburgers and sweets until they get sick. That’s why children need to be made to eat healthily. Similarly, they need to be provided with print media.
Is that the case?
That’s precisely the problem. The poverty gap in our society is essentially an education gap. It’s the same with media as with food – the more convenient, the better. Responsible parents make sure that children eat not just fries, but also spinach. That principle also applies to education, books, and reading.
Do you consider the fact that e-books have accounted for a declining proportion of book sales in English-speaking countries in the past three years as an encouraging sign for print?
I don’t think that we’ll see a major trend reversal, but there will certainly be a certain shift back towards print. How successful books will be in the future also depends on the creativity of publishing companies. However, I’m convinced that books will continue to have a huge market because they have many advantages. There’s no chance though that the digital world (of books) will disappear.