Scientific American: Why the Brain Prefers Paper

Submitted by: Phil Riebel 12/02/2013

December 2, 2013

There is good news for those who enjoy paper and print!  An article in the recent November 2013 issue of Scientific American magazine clearly supports what we already know:  most people understand and remember text better when read on paper rather than a screen.  According to the article, while e-readers and tablets are becoming more popular as these technologies improve, reading on paper has many advantages.

Since the 1980s, there have been more than 100 comparative studies in the United States, U.K. Taiwan, Sweden, Norway, France and Japan to explore differences of how people read and comprehend on paper versus screens.  While technology has continued to improve, it still hasn't reached the comprehension level of traditional paper users.  What we have learned from these studies is that readers prefer real paper over its electronic counterpart and achieve high levels of comprehension and retention with paper.

In the article, researchers agree that "screen-based reading can dull comprehension because it is more mentally taxing and even physically tiring that reading on paper.  E-ink reflects ambient light just like the ink on a paper book, but computer screens, smart phones and tablets shine light directly on people's faces.  Prolonged reading on glossy, self-illuminated screens can cause eyestrain, headaches and blurred vision.  In an experiment by Erik Wastlund, then at Karlstad University in Sweden, people who took a reading comprehension test on a computer scored lower and reported higher levels of stress and tiredness than people who completed it on paper."

While there are obviously several advantages to using digital technology like being able to access an abundance of information at any time from one device or being able to conveniently travel with a number of different resources in one digital location, paper is still more conducive to learning.  And e-readers fail to re-create certain tactile experiences of reading on paper, the absence of which some find unsettling.

The graphic below  helps to weigh paper against pixel with some compelling points.

Paper not only has inherent environmental features such as high recyclability, carbon storage, and a renewable primary raw material (wood, recycled and alternative fibers), it also fills a key societal role by helping readers create their own unique experience whether it is through learning and study habits or getting personally involved in a work of fiction.  It is less distracting and allows the reader to focus on the text.  The absence of multi-tasking leads to a greater understanding of the subject matter and in turn creates a memorable experience.

Check out the article for yourself.  It goes into great detail about why the brain prefers paper and how the human brain interprets written language, perceives text and constructs a mental representation of the text that is similar to the mental maps we create of terrain and indoor spaces.

Do you prefer to read on paper or screens? Click here to take the Scientific American poll.

Scientific American is available at many newsstands.  To subscribe to Scientific American on-line or purchase the November issue go to:  http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=the-reading-brain-in-the-digital-age-why-paper-still-beats-screens

Phil Riebel, President, Two Sides U.S., Inc.