Why your brain loves closed captioning

Captioning has taken off — and for good reason

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published April 4, 2021 5:30PM (EDT)

A young couple cuddling and watching a movie on a video projector (Getty Images)
A young couple cuddling and watching a movie on a video projector (Getty Images)

It's Friday night, and my family and I are engaging in that rarest of pastimes — communal viewing. We fire up the newest episode of "The Falcon and the Winter Soldier," and we make sure we've turned on the subtitles. No one in our household is hard of hearing. So why do we do that?

We're clearly not unique in our habits. In 2020, the United Kingdom's Office of Communications released the results of a study that found that 18% of the population regularly uses closed captioning — but only 20% of those viewers were hard of hearing. 

Home captioning has been around for nearly fifty years — the first show to introduce it was Julia Child's "The French Chef," back in 1972. In the early days, the service was presumed only of interest to non-hearing viewers, who soon needed a special device to access it. Over time, captioning technology was built in to televisions, and the last decade has brought more refinement of accessibility requirements to streaming services. It didn't take long for the broader applications to captioning to become evident.

Dr Richard Purcell, a UK doctor and one of the founders of the captioning company Caption.Ed, sees his company as a service for people "with and without hearing impairment to enhance their interactions with media." As he explains, "There is a wealth of evidence demonstrating that, for a wide range of participants, captions can improve a viewer's comprehension and retention of information. There is also evidence to suggest captions can improve a viewer's ability to draw inferences and define words, identifying emotions from media sources.

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Unsurprisingly, then, turning on the captions and integrating text with speech can assist viewers who are learning a new language. It can likewise be helpful for children and adults to promote reading skills, making it an important tool to meet the current moment. As actor comedian Stephen Fry said in a recent video called "Turn on the Subtitles," "the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has meant that some children have actually taken a step backwards in literacy," he tells us, "which is a worry and a tragedy." Introducing reading into TV watching is a painless way to try to move the needle. And by giving deeper context clues, captioning can help other kinds of viewers as well.

"People with conditions such as Autism Spectrum Disorder, Attention Deficit Disorder and Mild Cognitive Impairment may find higher levels of engagement and enjoyment by using closed captioning," says Dr. Puja Uppal of the Think Healthy podcast. Captioning, she says, "provides an immersive experience that correlates to higher levels of enjoyment, satisfaction, and retention." 

Writing in Medium in 2018, Accalia Baronets laid out the same case from the perspective of one such viewer. "I don't understand body language at all," she wrote. "It's hard to focus on a show when there's a lot of body language going on that I don't understand. I have ADHD. Captions help me to focus on what I'm watching."

Dr. Stephen Christman, a cognitive psychologist and professor of psychology at The University of Toledo, admits to some more superficial pleasures of closed captioning. "When watching sporting events, I sometimes turn on closed captioning so that I can listen to music while still following the action," he says. "Another trivial reason that I've also partaken of is to turn on closed captioning just to enjoy all the amazing typos that appear."

But he also notes the potential of captioning for language learning, as well as other cognitive benefits. "We can read faster than we can speak," he says. "With closed captioning on, the viewer can quickly read the current dialogue and then turn their attention back to the visual action and use their knowledge of what is being said — and what is about to be said — to enhance their appreciation of the nonverbal/visual aspects of what is happening on the screen."

In my own home, there are a variety of reasons we use the subtitles. My high schooler prefers a lower volume (and sadly for my middle-aged eyes, dimmer screen), so captioning makes an effective compromise. My family likes to comment on the action, talking right over — and sometimes missing — key dialogue. We live on a city street that intermittently erupts with sirens, music and altercations, and captions enable us to tune out whatever screaming is going on outside. We also appreciate the additional information captions can provide, like the name of a song playing in the background, or the distinction between [applause] and [polite applause]. 

But in my household, the appeal of captioning goes beyond keeping peace. Like Wired writer Jason Kehe, who gave his own analysis of the boom in captioning back 2018, I frankly sometimes just don't catch what the people I'm watching are saying. Whether you're a fan of Christopher Nolan-era "Batman" movies or English reality shows, sometimes you need a little help. The first time a friend recommended "Derry Girls" to me, she warned, "Turn on the captions. You're going to need them." She was correct.

There's value outside my four walls too. As legions of travelers and users of public spaces know — or at least they did when we traveled and used public spaces — captioning also makes it easier to enjoy personal entertainment without potentially interfering with anybody else's airspace. Maybe watching "Gladiator" on your phone on a crowded train with the captions on isn't quite the IMAX experience, but it is an undeniably convenient way of being entertained without bothering the person next to you.

Captioning has its limitations. It can really wreck a great punchline or suspenseful twist, making it ill-suited to anything that relies on surprise. It can be irritating when it's poorly executed and riddled with errors. Yet for many of us, it's a welcome enhancement regardless of our hearing ability.

Still, the captioning I enjoy the most is the kind I am still unable to enjoy. I can't wait to be in a packed bar again on a weekend afternoon, different sporting events broadcasting from either end of the room, and above the noise of the crowd, the reassuring flicker of descriptive words underneath the action.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Adhd Autism Broadcasting Closed Captioning Commentary Literacy