Thanks to technology, we’re reading more than ever—our brains process thousands of words via text messages, email, games, social media, and web stories. According to one report, the amount people that read tripled from 1980 to the late 2000s, and it’s probably safe to say that trend continues today. But as we jam more and more words into our heads, how we read those words has changed in a fundamental way: we’ve moved from paper to screens. It’s left many wondering what we’ve lost (or gained) in the shift, and a handful of scientists are trying to figure out the answer.
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[M]any researchers say that reading onscreen encourages a particular style of reading called “nonlinear” reading—basically, skimming. In a 2005 study out of San Jose University, Ziming Liu looked at how reading behavior changed over the past decade, and found exactly this pattern. “The screen-based reading behavior is characterized by more time spent on browsing and scanning, keyword spotting, one-time reading, non-linear reading, and reading more selectively,” Liu wrote. In the face of endless information, links, videos, and images demanding our attention, we’ve adapted our reading to fit our screens.
But this style of reading may come at a cost—Liu noted in his study that sustained attention seems to decline when people read onscreen rather than on paper, and that people also spend less time on in-depth reading. “In digital, we can link in different media, images, sound, and other text, and people can get overwhelmed,” explains Andrew Dillon, a professor at the School of Information at the University of Texas, Austin, “These are disruptive activities that can carry a cost in terms of attention.” Another study by Rakefet Ackerman Technion-Israel Institute of Technology also supports the idea that paper is sometimes less distracting than our computers. The researchers found that when people read short nonfiction onscreen, their understanding of the text suffered because people managed their time poorly compared with when they used paper (although paper’s advantage disappeared when people were given a fixed amount of time to read the text). Other studies have also found costs when people multi-task online in both efficiency and the quality of work they create (like a written report) based on their understanding of what they read.
Nonlinear reading might especially hurt what researchers call “deep-reading”—our in-depth reading of text that requires intense focus to fully understand it, like the works of James Joyce or Virginia Woolf. “Skimming is fine for our emails, but it’s not fine for some of the important forms of reading,” says Tufts University cognitive neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf. “If you word-spot James Joyce, you’ll miss the entire experience.” Wolf says that since humans didn’t evolve to read, we have very plastic brain circuits for this particular skill and our brains easily adapt to whatever medium we read. If we habitually browse and word-spot, Wolf explains, our brains will favor that type of reading even when we crack open Ulysses.
Link to the rest at FastCompany and thanks to Dave for the tip.
PG is a pretty digital guy, but he still proofreads documents where every word has to be right on paper.
However, he reads both fiction and nonfiction books exclusively on an ereader or tablet.