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The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper versus Screens

13 November 2017

Note: PG mentioned this article when it first appeared in 2013, but thought it worthy for a revisit.

From Scientific American:

In a viral YouTube video from October 2011 a one-year-old girl sweeps her fingers across an iPad’s touchscreen, shuffling groups of icons. In the following scenes she appears to pinch, swipe and prod the pages of paper magazines as though they too were screens. When nothing happens, she pushes against her leg, confirming that her finger works just fine—or so a title card would have us believe.

The girl’s father, Jean-Louis Constanza, presents “A Magazine Is an iPad That Does Not Work” as naturalistic observation—a Jane Goodall among the chimps moment—that reveals a generational transition. “Technology codes our minds,” he writes in the video’s description. “Magazines are now useless and impossible to understand, for digital natives”—that is, for people who have been interacting with digital technologies from a very early age.

. . . .

How exactly does the technology we use to read change the way we read? How reading on screens differs from reading on paper is relevant not just to the youngest among us, but to just about everyone who reads—to anyone who routinely switches between working long hours in front of a computer at the office and leisurely reading paper magazines and books at home; to people who have embraced e-readers for their convenience and portability, but admit that for some reason they still prefer reading on paper; and to those who have already vowed to forgo tree pulp entirely. As digital texts and technologies become more prevalent, we gain new and more mobile ways of reading—but are we still reading as attentively and thoroughly? How do our brains respond differently to onscreen text than to words on paper? Should we be worried about dividing our attention between pixels and ink or is the validity of such concerns paper-thin?

. . . .

Before 1992 most studies concluded that people read slower, less accurately and less comprehensively on screens than on paper. Studies published since the early 1990s, however, have produced more inconsistent results: a slight majority has confirmed earlier conclusions, but almost as many have found few significant differences in reading speed or comprehension between paper and screens. And recent surveys suggest that although most people still prefer paper—especially when reading intensively—attitudes are changing as tablets and e-reading technology improve and reading digital books for facts and fun becomes more common. In the U.S., e-books currently make up between 15 and 20 percent of all trade book sales.

Even so, evidence from laboratory experiments, polls and consumer reports indicates that modern screens and e-readers fail to adequately recreate certain tactile experiences of reading on paper that many people miss and, more importantly, prevent people from navigating long texts in an intuitive and satisfying way. In turn, such navigational difficulties may subtly inhibit reading comprehension. Compared with paper, screens may also drain more of our mental resources while we are reading and make it a little harder to remember what we read when we are done. A parallel line of research focuses on people’s attitudes toward different kinds of media. Whether they realize it or not, many people approach computers and tablets with a state of mind less conducive to learning than the one they bring to paper.

“There is physicality in reading,” says developmental psychologist and cognitive scientist Maryanne Wolf of Tufts University, “maybe even more than we want to think about as we lurch into digital reading—as we move forward perhaps with too little reflection. I would like to preserve the absolute best of older forms, but know when to use the new.”

Link to the rest at Scientific American

Speaking of lurching into digital reading and preserving the “absolute best of older forms,” if you were to enter TPV Central, you would see a great deal of paper (assuming Mrs. PG didn’t demand a preparatory cleanup).

Despite Mrs. PG’s contentions, PG has a mental map of the various stacks and bits of paper, USB cords, dead mice (of the computer variety), backup hard drives, rechargeable batteries, etc., that cover his rather large corner desk. While PG admits to certain areas of terra incognita, generally speaking, he can lay a hand on what he is seeking with a surprising degree of accuracy.

That said, he conducts the vast majority of his reading via computer screens (three on his desk plus tablets, Kindles, iPhones, etc.). If PG read the equivalent amount of material on paper, his lair would be filled with file cabinets (if Mrs. PG had her way), Casa PG would require multiple weekly visits from one or more garbage trucks and Washington/Oregon would be devoid of forests.

While PG doesn’t have a mental map of his digital reading, he does have a search function on each of his devices. While mental maps of long-form paper publications can be useful, how many of such maps can a person retain in their memories for any length of time?

Casa PG still contains quite a number of bookshelves filled with paper books. While PG (mostly) recognizes titles he has read, his mental maps of the contents of those titles have disappeared into the mists of time.

PG is reminded of an old lawyer from a long time ago. (He was a real lawyer, not a player in a parable.) This lawyer was well-known for the huge piles of paper on his desk, on the floor of his office, etc., and also for his astounding ability to reach into the correct pile and the correct location in each pile to retrieve a needed document. While PG never witnessed the lawyer performing this feat, those who had pronounced themselves highly impressed by the lawyer’s organizational abilities.

A few years after this old lawyer met his reward, PG was talking with one of the lawyer’s partners. For some reason, the conversation turned to the old lawyer’s desk and his supernatural ability to remember where everything was.

The lawyer’s partner spoke of the arduous job of clearing the old lawyer’s desk. In the process, the partners discovered many thousands of dollars in uncashed client checks, some years old, that the lawyer had placed into his desktop filing system and forgotten about. If properly deposited, those checks would have substantially increased the firm’s income.

PG suggests that, like many other things residing in the human mind, mental maps have their drawbacks as information retrieval systems.

Ebooks, PG's Thoughts (such as they are)

13 Comments to “The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper versus Screens”

  1. Twas outdated then and even more so in this day and age.

    I’ve been ‘reading’ on the screen since the BBSs (there were a couple of writers on one I visited.)

    Those studies worried about ‘tactile experiences’ have never seen a kid (or most adults) with a smart phone or other handheld device (my kindle for reading, my netbook for writing. 😉 )

  2. I think once the people who make these studies stop trying to force their pet world view on the study to show that either paper is the only way to go or ebooks are the one-true-way, they’ll come to the conclusion that your brain sees words – period.
    Words on paper, words on screen, heck words on mylar balloons. The words create the images in our minds, not the medium upon which we see them.
    With the exception of reference materials almost everything of mine is digital now, otherwise I would need a second house just for my books.

  3. You can find or craft a study to ‘prove’ just about anything you want to prove. “Studies” don’t come with some sort of global quality control. A study that doesn’t agree with what you want is “fake science”, and news about a study that doesn’t agree with what you want is “fake news”.

    The more things change, the more they stay the same. – Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr.

  4. Also, here’s a point I never see the trad pub advocates addressing. Those of us who prefer not to carry purses (aren’t there some creatures called guys who’ve been doing this for years?) are tired of getting stuck in waiting rooms with only dog-eared magazines to read. Now we have Kindle apps on our phones! And believe it or not, it’s easy to read an entire book on an ordinary-size smart phone.

    I just make sure to load a nonfiction book with bite-size chapters so I don’t forget what I was reading about. Preferably NOT with sections about how much better it is to haul around a heavy book so you can experience the thrill of paper cuts.

  5. I can totally accept that many people’s brains see and process words the same, regardless of medium, and I think that ebooks are awesome for those people…but for me the medium matters greatly for absorption and comprehension. This may have to do with my ADD, the fact that I’m a highly tactile/sensual person, and/or the fact that I’m somewhat spatially challenged and easily get lost without page boundaries as navigational markers.

    The rest of my family are huge Kindle fanatics, I’ve tried several different models, and I’m not even that old (mid-30’s). But no matter how hard I try, I’ve found that when I read off a screen, I just can’t concentrate deeply enough to feel like I’m satisfactorily absorbing fiction for more than a couple thousand words. Again and again, frustratingly, I find myself skimming, the way I do when reading online articles, threads, etc., and have to force myself to go back and really read…only half the time I can’t remember where I stopped reading and started skimming. I also have a huge habit of glancing back in the pages I’ve already read to check or confirm little details, and this is much more difficult and flow-breaking when I can’t recall how many pages back or where on the page they appeared, as is finding my place again. I also get antsy when I can’t flip or feel the edges of the pages with my thumbs, something I didn’t even realize I did until I tried reading on a device where I couldn’t do that.

    If I live to see the day when ebooks are the only form in which books are commonly sold, I hope there’s a service for people like me that will take an ebook file and print and bind it on demand! Otherwise I’ll be stuck with reading old books (in which case I still wouldn’t live long enough to run out of things to read, but…)

  6. Neuse River Sailor

    That’s a great story to end your post, but I wonder if the old man didn’t “lose” some of those checks on purpose. There was a day when professional people used to look out for their neighbors who were going through financial difficulties. I’m sure there are many of them still. It’s just easier to lose a check on your desk than on a computer.

  7. I am a confirmed digital reader– I only read paper when i am forced to– yet I estimate that some 30-40% of my reading is paper.

    I like to see ebooks trashed and criticized. Why? I don’t want the ebook reading device developers to think that they have won the battle, and ebook readers are good enough. They are not.

    There are still areas where paper is better, mostly in navigating within a book. I have a better sense of where I am at in a paper book than an ebook. I can usually find something that I have read and want to refer back to faster in a paper book. Digital search functions are great when you have a search term ready and you don’t have any idea where your target is in the book, but usually, I know about where I read something, but I often don’t easily think of a term that will narrow a search enough to get a quick result; at that point, paper is better and faster for me.

    I want better ereaders. They are evolving too slowly for me. I read mostly in the Kindle app on my old Surface 3 tablet. A dedicated Kindle is a little better, but I am inseparable from my Surface and a Kindle is not good enough to warrant carrying an extra device around. My current ereading setup is not that much better than when I got books from Peanut Press to read on my Palm.

    Come on guys. Make them better.

  8. Dear PG,

    Do not forget the other end of the line: when you have to examine every single piece of paper in your home to decide what will make the 5-10% cut to move with you to the retirement community.

    It really isn’t any fun – and it’s unfair to leave for the heirs.

    Person Stuck Exactly There

  9. A few years ago, I had a guy leave a dumpster in our driveway for a week. He dropped it on Monday, and picked it up the next Monday.

    The first few items I threw in were difficult. I knew I could use the item someday, and maybe it would be better to just stick it in the garage loft. Checking account records from 1984 might be necessary some day. And I wondered what was in those sealed boxes of books that hadn’t been opened since being packed fourteen years ago. Three continents of junk was in my crosshairs.

    Then the frenzy took over. Nothing was safe. I scoured the house. Everything I tossed in the dumpster added to my victory. My wife hid the cat, and she began wearing a reflective vest. It no longer matter what I had paid for the item. Toss it. Some items escaped to the curb where they disappeared over night into some other guy’s collection. Craigs List? Just a delaying tactic. Toss it.

    Goodwill gained a small library. After the first ten books they went half a shelf at a time.

    The dumpster cost $300 for the week, and I managed to fill it. I watched the guy haul it away with a great sense of accomplishment. A bargain. Free at last.

  10. I love reading, period, whether ebook or print desn’t matter as long as I can read. That said, I was reading a British thriller novel on my Kindle and got so caught up in the story that I found myself flipping the whole device over, forgetting I wasn’t turning a physical page.

  11. Actually, I’m getting pretty good at putting my finger on the Kindle line and picking out the page I was looking for.

    I hate to point it out, but remembering the context around a book tends to fade with age… or bad nutrition. If you are having trouble focusing, take your vitamins, eat good food, and get some sleep.

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