NEWS

Everyone Uses PowerPoint. But Your Brain Doesn't Like It

woman giving a powerpoint presentation

Monty Rakusen / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • Too many words on PowerPoint slides can reduce, rather than enhance, retention and comprehension.
  • Multitasking by reading slides and listening to a speaker can overwhelm the audience, leading them to tune out or forget the material.
  • PowerPoint images with pictures and small phrases are more engaging.

When it comes to sharing facts on a screen, there's really nothing as ubiquitous as good old-fashioned PowerPoint. We all know how to use it, and utilize it within most professions, but is it actually benefitting our brains' ability to absorb information?

Industry experts say 89% of people using presentation tools prefer PowerPoint, and that more than 500 million people use the Microsoft-based tool. Initially called Presenter, PowerPoint has been around since 1987. Thanks to pandemic lockdowns, the use of Zoom, and digital presentations, the use of PowerPoint by schools and companies has exploded.

“With so many virtual meetings due to COVID-19, PowerPoint usage has increased to disseminate a large amount of information within a short period of time,” says Sheri Dewan, MD, a neurosurgeon at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital.

“Many businesses or organizations use PowerPoint for lecture purposes, specifically during the COVID pandemic, to get information to employees or staff in a streamlined way,” she adds.

If used effectively in a way that engages the creative and logical parts of the brain, experts say PowerPoint can be a beneficial medium. But slides filled with words that require lengthy reading lead people to multitask, going back and forth between listening to the speaker and reading slides. That multitasking component makes it hard to comprehend the overall message and material being presented.

As we examine the way our brains process PowerPoint and the mental health impact of multitasking, we’ll look at how you can use PowerPoint and multimedia tools in a way that really helps you.

When PowerPoint Becomes a Problem

PowerPoint is a visual aid that can enhance the message behind the speech being given verbally. It helps get information to several people at the same time, in a way they can understand and digest. It engages an audience, helps organize the details you want to share, and helps you control the flow of your content. When people can view pictures to go along with the words, or digest quick points on a slide, it serves a purpose and is beneficial.

Sheri Dewan, MD

Things such as viewing a PowerPoint and trying to process the speaker and read the words can be very difficult for the human brain. I think COVID’s only highlighted this more for us.

— Sheri Dewan, MD

The problem occurs when the slides contain extensive information, and a person is expected to keep up with what’s being said by the presenter and read what’s on the slides. Multitasking then becomes a challenge.

“Essentially, the brain is not good at doing two things at once, especially when it’s utilizing the same portion of the brain,” explains Dr. Dewan. “Things such as viewing a PowerPoint and trying to process the speaker and read the words can be very difficult for the human brain. I think COVID’s only highlighted this more for us,” she notes.

Mental health professionals say that when the brain is overly activated, it negatively impacts our four areas of awareness. 

“We have sensory awareness, bodily [awareness], mental awareness and social awareness,” explains Felice Martin, MS, NCC, LPC, NeuroCoach and NeuroLeader, Behavioral Health Associates of Georgia, LLC. “When our brain is activated [negatively] then it really shuts off the learning parts of our brain. If I have all these tasks or these file cabinets open, then I’m overwhelmed, my brain is shut down, [and] I don’t know what to do,” she notes.

Felice Martin, LPC

When our brain is activated [negatively] then it really shuts off the learning parts of our brain. If I have all these tasks or these file cabinets open, then I’m overwhelmed, my brain is shut down, [and] I don’t know what to do.

— Felice Martin, LPC

That feeling of being overwhelmed can lead to mental over-stimulation, being forgetful, and even exhaustion. Although studies have shown a positive impact of using technology and PowerPoint in the classroom, if not handled properly, it can be detrimental to students.

“This type of issue with brain multitasking can lead to ADD in children. It can also create a situation where kids can become increasingly frustrated with learning because they’re not able to hold their attention for long periods of time,” Dr. Dewan advises.

In fact, a study notes that students retained less information when PowerPoint slides were a part of the presentation. The use of the slides themselves is not the problem. Instead, it's the way the information is presented.

Use PowerPoint to Benefit You

Employing any visual medium requires having materials to enhance, not detract, from the message. If used properly, PowerPoint can be one such medium. The key is to not overwhelm the brain to the point that people tune out the message.

“Within the PowerPoint, it’s more useful to have visual cues than have large paragraphs of wording there. More pictures and illustrations can sometimes help the listener break up the monotony of the presentation,” Dr. Dewan advises. 

Images can also reduce mental exhaustion by working different parts of the brain.

“If you do have pictures, then that’s definitely going to create more of a sense of engagement. It stimulates that creative part of our brain,” adds Martin.

With adults and children alike, incorporating the ability to write can help increase retention and make the use of PowerPoint more effective. From workbooks on the material, to pen and paper for taking notes or even drawing, it allows the brain to process details more effectively.

Ultimately, the goal of the medium you’re using is to help your message to be heard. Your brain doesn’t love overstimulation and multitasking that can come with PowerPoint. But by creating slides that are not too wordy, that engage the audience, and that enhance the message, PowerPoint can become an effective tool.

What This Means For You

PowerPoint is a go-to presentation tool for the workplace and school, especially with the prevalence of Zoom presentations. But filling presentation slides with large blocks of type can frustrate and confuse your audience. Use pictures and small phrases to create an effective and impactful presentation that their brains can process.

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4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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