Is it the medium or the message? I conducted an EEG study to learn the answer. I measured the activity of the brain while people experienced different media including print, personal computers, and mobile devices. There are few scientific studies that have been done in this area of research. By its nature, this study is a work in progress, one which has profound consequences for many disciplines and how we experience our world through different media.
Seth D Brown
My EEG Study of how people experience different media began when Eric McLuhan suggested on the Media Ecology Association email listserv that someone ought to follow-up on the work Herbert Krugman had done. Krugman had run a small experiment using EEG in response to Eric’s father, Marshall McLuhan. Marshall McLuhan stated that media contribute more to the experience for people than the message. As he put it: the medium is the message. Krugman sought to prove Marshall McLuhan wrong and failed. The results from Krugman’s study showed that the medium did contribute more to the activity of the brain than the message.
Gregory O’Toole took to the task and completed a study comparing print to new e-ink display technology, found in devices such as the e-ink Kindle device marketed by Amazon. O’Toole found that there was no significant difference between the activity of the brain when experiencing print and when experiencing the e-ink technology. During this study, O’Toole had time to briefly examine the activity of the brain when viewing an LCD screen monitor connected to a personal computer and saw some significant change which recommended further examination.
I was a collaborator with O’Toole on his study and sought his advice when continuing to examine the difference between print and LCD flat panel displays connected to personal computers, and displays on handheld mobile computing devices. Eric McLuhan provided guidance to ensure the study was kept clear and concise. Tim Sienold was kind to lend his brain so I would not be the only subject in the study. Sienold also improved the study by reducing the preparation time with the headset. Dr. Jose Colón was instrumental in getting me oriented in the EEGLAB environment thanks to his experience with Matlab.
You can read more about Krugman’s study at TV Smarter. Krugman was comparing the effect of print to television, the predominant electronic medium at the time. This study is primarily concerned with the computing medium.
The hypothesis is to measure the activity of the brain as people experience the same content through different media, including: print, a full screen digital document on a flat planel display, a web page on the same display, and the same web page on a handheld mobile device display. Then, to take these measurements and compare them, looking for any significant difference or similarity between the different periods of time the subject is experiencing each medium.
The following tools are used in the study:
Emotiv EEG Neural Headset – The Emotiv EEG Headset is a wireless device that records brainwave activity on 14 EEG channels. The 14 EEG channel names based on the International 10-20 locations are: AF3, F7, F3, FC5, T7, P7, O1, O2, P8, T8, FC6, F4, F8, AF4.
8 1/2″ x 11″ standard paper with printing done by a laser printer – The content on the print-outs is the same content used throughout the study, James Joyce’s ‘Dubliners’. This was the same content used in O’Toole’s study.
Personal Computer with Flat Panel Display – This is an x86 personal computer running the Microsoft Windows XP Operating System outputting through a Video Graphics Array, VGA port, to a Liquid Crystal Display, LCD, backlit by a Cold Cathode Flourescent Lamp, CCFL bulb, displaying at 1024 x 768 resolution.
Full Screen Digital Document with no Annotation – This is a digital document in Adobe Portable Document Format, PDF, displaying in full screen mode with no titie bar or menu bar on the display. The printed document was rendered from the same PDF file that was displayed.
EEGLAB – EEGLAB is an open source environment for electrophysiological signal processing. Running in the Matlab environment, EEGLAB is a toolbox for processing EEG data. The measurments taken using the Emotiv EEG Headset are processed in EEGLAB.
The Emotiv EEG headset is placed on the head of the subject and the signal strength from each sensor is confirmed using the Emotiv diagnostic tool. The subject is seated and experiences James Joyce’s ‘Dubliners’ through different media accompanied by periods of rest as follows:
5 minutes of Rest
10 minutes of Print
5 minutes of Rest
10 minutes of Full Screen PDF
5 minutes of Rest
10 minutes of Web Page with Links
5 minutes of Rest
10 minutes of Mobile Device
5 minutes of Rest
The data was collected and processed using EEGLAB. The different time periods were reviewed for any apparent difference. The difference between the Printed Word and Web Page with Links time periods is most apparent. The following images of the EEG tracings illustrate this difference, which is exhibited by both subjects in the study:
Subject S – Printed Word
Subject S – Web Page with Links
Please forgive the turquoise highlighting on the Web Page with Links time period image, this in an unintentional artifact that occurred capturing the image.
The next image is even more revealing, this is a spectral analysis of the EEG measurements performed in EEGLAB based on the frequencies that Krugman and O’Toole mention in their studies.
Subject S – Spectral Analysis of Printed Word and Web Page with Links
The spectral analysis of the EEG clearly shows a spike in activity in right hemisphere of the brain in the Web Page with LInks time period compared to the Printed Word time period, along with comparatively increased activity across the entire brain.
There is a difference in the activity of the brain when experiencing the same content through different media. One concern that surrounds this conclusion is whether what we are seeing is the same content being experienced again and not the experience of the different medium. In other words, the brain is exhibiting different activity as it experiences the same content again. We did our best to eliminate this in how our subjects experienced the content. The two subjects each took different approaches to experiencing the content: the first subject experienced the same passage, starting again for each time period, the second subject experienced different passages, continuing on for each time period. The same difference in brain activity between time periods is apparent and most apparent for both subjects when comparing the Print time period to the Web Page with Links time period.
The data from the Mobile Device time period was incomplete and could not be used. However, there were further areas of inquiry revealed by the mobile device experience results. Our conclusion is that Marshall McLuhan’s metaphor is apt and Herbert Krugman’s study is a helpful starting point when examining our experience of media. I’m pleased to find that the results provide some new questions to answer. A follow-up study will include a CRT monitor as another type of display to test and closer examination of the mobile device results.