Is reading subtitles good for your brain?
Short answer, yes. Reading subtitles while you’re watching TV or a movie has multiple cognitive benefits; strengthening reading skills, boosting comprehension and attention to detail, and improving memory.
Subtitles are back in fashion
Subtitles are experiencing a renaissance. According to a recent survey 80% of 18-25 year olds said they use subtitles all or part of the time. A spokeswoman told the BBC “I think there’s far more acceptance young people because it’s the norm … they can take in far more information quickly because they’re used to it.”
But the question remains, does reading subtitles make you smart?
Before we dive into the science and research, let’s take a look at some of the practical benefits of captions.
Benefits of reading subtitles
- you can watch quietly with the volume low so you don’t disturb roommates or family
- helps you understand muddled audio tracks or mumbled dialogue
- you focus more easily on the content whilst juggling multiple screens, pets, kids etc
- subtitles help you understand difficult accents – think Peaky Blinders, or anything with Arnold Schwarzenegger!
Note: Although there are some actual technical differences, in this article we’ll assume the words ‘subtitles’ and ‘captions’ are interchangeable.
Your brain on subtitles
How do subtitles impact your viewing experience? Well, contrary to what you might think, subtitles don’t detract from your enjoyment, they enhance the viewing experience. A 2015 review listed over 100 empirical studies which described the cognitive benefits of reading subtitles.
Everyone from from younger children to older adults showed improvements in comprehension, attention and memory improvements.
Citing some of the findings the study leads with the statement, “Imagine a technique that can improve children’s reading skills , boost adolescents’ written and spoken vocabulary, increase college students’ attention to lectures , enhance second-language learners’ pronunciation, and raise literacy rates in developing countries. The technique is simple: Display captions on videos.”
Read more about the neuroscientific benefits of reading subtitles here
Can subtitles improve your memory?
Subtitles also help us to store and retain information more easily. One theory is that subtitles allow viewers to store more information by freeing up the working memory, and allowing more visual and audio content to be retained.
The theory was borne out in a real life experiment which found video subtitles caused a 9.8% increase in memory recall for subjects with no hearing impairments, and a whopping 149.6% increase in memory recall for hearing-impaired subjects.
Another study, focussed on television advertising found that same-language subtitles could improve brand recall and memory of other verbal information.
Does reading subtitles improve reading?
There’s lots of evidence to suggest that subtitles can improve reading ability.
One publication discovered that subtitles can double a child’s chance of developing strong reading skills.
Eye tracking studies have also confirmed that subtitles encourage automatic reading behaviour which provides extra practice in word recognition, comprehension and general literacy skills.
And to quell any doubts that subtitles are an annoying distraction, a massive study of 450,000 children showed that 98% of viewers who had subtitles defaulted to on, kept them on, and there were zero complaints at having subtitles on screen.
Is reading subtitles the same as reading a book?
No. Novels and non-fiction books contain a deeper level of vocabulary, more descriptive language and surrounding contextual information. Films and TV shows fill in these gaps with pictures and sound, so movie subtitles will not give you the same cognitive workout as reading the actual book.
Subtitles do count as reading, but think about it as a snack for the brain, rather than the full meal satisfaction you’d get from a chunky novel.
Plus, reading the captions or subtitles can make you smarter too! Read on to find out more about the benefits of reading subtitles, whether you’re hard-of-hearing, learning a foreign language or just watching for entertainment.
Can you learn a language by watching TV or movies with subtitles?
Score of studies have demonstrated the benefits of subtitles for learning a second language. If you’re new to a language you’ll probably benefit most by using English captions so you can start to associate English words with their foreign counterparts.
At an intermediate level, you can try switching to foreign subtitles. This is a great way to increase your foreign language vocabulary as you can both hear the sound of the words and at the same time, check the spelling and syntax in your second language.
For more info, here’s a great article debating the pros and cons of different methods of learning a foreign language using TV subtitles.
As we’ve seen, reading subtitles is a super-easy brain hack that’s effortless to implement and scientifically proven to make you smarter.
Even if you can hear and understand what’s spoken on screen you should turn on the subtitles. If you want to get better at reading subtitles there’s no excuse to start now!
What’s the difference between subtitles, open and closed captions?
Broadly speaking subtitles are intended for viewers who don’t understand the language being spoken in the video while captions are meant for people who can’t hear the audio. However outside the USA, where captions are a legal requirement, subtitles refer to captions as well.
Where can I find subtitles on Netflix?
Open Netflix, select a show and start playing. Tap, click or swipe the screen, depending on your device until you see the Audio and Subtitles icon. Here you can choose your subtitle language and other language options
Where are the subtitles on Youtube?
Most, but not every video on Youtube has subtitles (here they’re called Closed Captions). If they’re available you can find them by clicking the CC button in the bottom-right of the video. This will bring up many options including language selection, position, colors and more. In the Youtube app, look for the three dots icon in the top right.