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Your Brain on Captions

Captions make it easier for us to consume and enjoy media every day. 

Whether you’re a deaf or hard-of-hearing film buff, a student following a lecture in a foreign language, or you’re simply trying to watch the news with a chatty friend or family member in the room, having text to read along with your video can feel like a breath of fresh air. 

There are many reasons your brain loves captions. Here are just some of the fantastic things going on in your head when you watch them. 

Firing Neurons 

Whether you’re watching content in your own language or a language you’re learning, studies have shown that captions facilitate the mapping of content between sound, meaning and text, oiling the wheels for comprehension – and stimulating your brain! 

There is a huge number of studies demonstrating that captioning videos vastly improves comprehension of content, attention to detail, and memory of a video’s content.  

As described by researchers Frey and Fisher, “When we experience something, neurons fire. Repeated firings lead to physical changes [in the brain] that, over time and with repetition, become more permanent.” When audiences absorb content through both audio media and text captions, their understanding is solidified and reinforced. 

One study from researcher Brij Kothari found that captions can double a child’s chance of developing strong reading skills. 

And as mother of two Marion McGillivray observes, “By turning on the subtitles, my children are reading without even knowing it.” As most parents will attest, any tool that encourages a reluctant child to read is a valuable thing indeed. 

Tracking Gaze

In ‘eye tracking’, researchers use near-infrared light and high-resolution cameras to track viewers’ gazes and responses to stimuli.  

The technology records a variety of data including pupil size, fixations (when the eye stays looking at one subject), and saccades (the way the eye moves between different subjects). 

This method has enabled researchers to learn more about the cognitive processes that occur when we watch captioned content. For example, we now know that even those with low reading skills will automatically look at the captions

Also, the degree to which viewers process the captions is determined by the extent to which they need them in order to follow the dialogue, or to obtain information on relevant sounds. 

Cognitive Load 

Cognitive load studies have found that captions help viewers process content more effectively. This theory works on the basis that humans have a limited working memory and processing capacity when receiving information from outside sources.  

This is useful information for many audiences with disabilities that affect cognitive load, as captions can support someone to process information when their brain is overwhelmed. (And remember! Transcripts also provide an after-the-fact record of the spoken content that all audiences can refer back to.) 

Working Memory 

Captions allow viewers to reduce the amount of information stored in the working memory, freeing up capacity for the absorption of visual and audio content they are also receiving.  

Memory testing studies have shown that captions help deaf viewers remember academic course content more effectively.  

And Marketing and Sales folks, listen up! Captions are also useful for successful advertising – according to this study by Gips and Brasel, same-language captions can enhance the effectiveness of TV ads by increasing brand recall and memory of other verbal information.  

Interestingly, lags in captions – which are often present in live content – were found to be beneficial to hearing viewers as they allowed the brain to catch up and refresh the working memory. 

Future Research 

There are many moving parts involved in the cognitive processing of captions, including lag, reading speed, caption position, content type and the presence of learning aides like PowerPoint presentations. 

With more research into this area, we’ll discover more about why the captions feel so good to watch. 

Watch this space! And to harness all these benefits and more, get in touch with our friendly team to get Ai-Media’s captions on your content. 


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