The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper versus Screens
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.
Notes that rejecting print media is premature, and today's digitally literate youth are perfectly capable of interpreting both digital and print texts. Still, the question of how digital reading is changing our brains or the way we read is valid.
Prior to the 1990's most scientific studies suggested that people were hindered by digital texts, with lower levels of concentration and retention, but since then, studies increasingly reduce the disparity. In part, this is because readers are adapting to a new way of reading. However, this is also largely do to changes and refinements in e-readers that make the experience more print like. E-books currently make up about 15 to 20% of trade book sales.
Understanding how the brain deciphers written language is essential to see the differences in types of reading. The brain basically sees written text - letters, words, and sentences - as physical objects because there is no other way the brain can interpret them. Very recently in our evolutionary past, the brain improvised new networks from existing regions of the brain in order to process and create written language, regions involving spoken language, object recognition, motor coordination and vision.
Because the brain is using these other specialized resources, the mind actually goes through the mental processes involved in writing language when a person is reading. It's as if the mind is mentally rewriting the text that one is reading.
In addition to the physicality of the letters on the page, the brain recognizes the landscape of the writing: how the text is laid out on the page, whether it is on one page or two, how thick the book is, and the feel of the book. This creates an obvious difference between digital reading, but e-readers are increasingly adapting to compensate. In essence, e-readers are trying to make the reading process as close to print as possible.
Although some studies show an increased reading retention rate with paper texts, the differences are small, and narrowing as digital readers come closer to a print-like experience. There is also some research that suggests long term retention with printed text is greater. The technology is so new, however, that this may change with time.
The reasons for the different experiences are complex, but many scholars believe that students have just been trained to read paper texts more intently for learning purposes, something that can change as teachers adapt to show how to read the same way with digital texts.
Another segment of thinkers, however, wonder why we need to make the experiences identical. Why not just accept that we read in different ways and that our minds handle digital texts in a unique manner? Perhaps the potential for new, effective, and even better adaptations of the human brain are possible.
The article has much more detail and is a very worthwhile read if you are interested.
Interested? Click the title or image to read on.
Source is ScientificAmerican.com
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Before you go, what are your thoughts on the differences between digital and print reading? Which do you prefer?