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This Is Your Brain on E-Books

When we read on dead trees, do we retain more?
April 12, 2013

I don’t have the best of memories, but ever since I was young, I prided myself on a particular talent with respect to reading. Occasionally I’d be near the end of a book, and would recall a passage near the beginning that I wanted to revisit. I wouldn’t remember the page or chapter, but almost without fail, I would recall the location on the page where the passage in question was. I knew that that wondeful description of Mr. Pumblechook appeared on the bottom half of a right-hand page, perhaps 10 lines from the bottom, and a few lines after a paragraph break.

I never knew what to make of this talent–how common it was, or whether it indicated I read more closely than others–but one thing I do know: it doesn’t have an analog in e-reading. I recall the sense of dismay I felt upon learning that e-books didn’t have pages per se, but “locations.” There was no such thing anymore as the description near the top of the page, since the location of text varied depending on the size of the text. The Kindle has extinguished my talent.

Scientific American takes a look this week at the differences between reading on paper versus reading electronically, from a scientific standpoint. When we move from dead trees to ones and zeroes, do we retain the same amount of information? Does the text and its meaning penetrate as deeply? “The matter is by no means settled,” writes author Ferris Jabr. Nonetheless, there is evidence that indicates that e-reading fails to replicate the “intuitive and satisfying” ways of navigating through longer texts, and that “[i]n turn, such navigational difficulties may subtly inhibit reading comprehension.”

Jabr’s piece delves into a lot of the science behind reading, and is worth reading–and perhaps printing out!–in full. It turns out that on some level, our brains can’t help but conceptualize of text as inherently physical; we’re not born with brain circuits dedicated for reading, which after all is an invention that came late in our evolutionary history.

Writes Jabr:

“When we read, we construct a mental representation of the text in which meaning is anchored to structure. The exact nature of such representations remains unclear, but they are likely similar to the mental maps we create of terrain—such as mountains and trails—and of man-made physical spaces, such as apartments and offices.”

This, it turns out, is related to my knack for remembering the spatial location of certain bits of a text.

People routinely report preferring paper reading for a deep dive on a topic, and there are a variety of theories why this should be. Screens, writes Jabr, are inherently taxing to look at; unless you’re dealing with an e-ink screen, there’s light being shined directly into the eye, which can cause fatigue.

Of course, it’s difficult to make sweeping pronouncements until we see how the new generation of “digital natives” turns out. Perhaps the next generation will “grow up without the subtle bias against screens that seems to lurk in the minds of older generations”; maybe these are mostly matters of nurture, not nature. It’s entirely possible.

Some hypothesize that the closer programmers mirror the user experience of paper–improving rapid navigation through a long text, for example, and replicating the sonic and visual experiences of turning a page–the more we will encode and retain information just as we did with paper books. For my money, I don’t see the value in ersatz storybook animations replicating turning pages. This, for me at least, is an uncanny valley that cannot be crossed. Paper and ink cannot be virtualized to my satisfaction, and it’s an article of faith for me (until the science proves me wrong) that the benefits of paper reading cannot be replicated.

But I readily concede that the next generation may read protestations like mine bemusedly; I do feel like an old man in my insistence that something is lost with the death of the physical book. I do appreciate the care that researchers are taking to quantify the benefits some feel in a physical culture of reading, even if they be few. We should have a firmer sense of just what it is we’re giving up, when we welcome all the conveniences of e-reading.

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