Real Books Beat E-Readers: How Your Brain Reads Words On Paper Vs. On A Screen

Submitted by: Pamela Watters 10/01/2014

This article by Stephanie Castillo appeared on the Medical Daily website on September 20, 2014.

If you asked late science-fiction writer Ray Bradbury what he thought of e-readers, or e-books, he would tell you they weren't books. He would say you can’t hold a computer the way you can hold a book; a computer does not smell and in order for it to be considered a book, it has got to smell. True, this is his opinion, but some forthcoming science supports the idea that there is a legitimate disadvantage to reading on a screen versus on traditional, (in the best way) smelly paper.

There are two ways in which people read: non-linear and linear. Non-linear reading is associated with computers and smartphones, also referred to as "superficial reading." It's more of a skim than an actual read, with readers darting their eyes page to page and unable to sit with what's been written for a long period of time. On the other hand, linear reading, or deep reading, is more thoughtful, deliberate, even meditative. And as one could guess, the digital age has made people more prone to non-linear reading.

"Because we literally and physiologically can read in multiple ways, how we read — and what we absorb from our reading — will be influenced by both the content of our reading and the medium we use," Maryanne Wolf, cognitive neuroscientist and director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., wrote for Nieman Reports; an idea she first explored in her 2008 book, Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain.

In Proust and the Squid, Wolf proposed these questions: "Will unguided information lead to an illusion of knowledge, and thus curtail the more difficult, time-consuming, critical thought processes that lead to knowledge itself? Will the split-second immediacy of information gained from a search engine and the sheer volume of what is available derail the slower, more deliberative processes that deepen our understanding of complex concepts, of another's inner thought processes, and of our own consciousness?"

Someone reading this might insinuate Wolf is proposing non-linear reading is makings readers dumb. But she told Public Radio International that it's not so much she worries "we'll become dumb because of the Internet," but more so she worries readers won't use "our most preciously acquired deep reading processes." It's these processes that enable readers to go beyond the text and analyze what's been written, to critically think and achieve that deep thought (among the many other benefits of reading).

"We need to understand the value of what we may be losing when we skim text so rapidly that we skip the precious milliseconds of deep reading processes. For it is within these moments — and these processes in our brains — that we might reach our own important insights and breakthroughs," she said.

It's an idea Wolf will expand upon in her forthcoming publication titled, "The changing reading brain of the 21st century: The importance of knowing what we do not know for the future of how we think." Though ultimately, as she told PRI, the ideal is for readers to discern a "bi-literate brain," not strictly read in a linear or non-linear way. She doesn't deny each boasts benefits (non-linear reading is great for speed-reading, for example), but a bi-literate brain prompts a reader when it's time to read in a non-linear versus linear way. It'll take some work, but Wolf believes it's possible.

We wonder if Bradbury would agree.


Source: This article by Stephanie Castillo appeared on the Medical Daily website on September 20, 2014.