Why Your Brain Wants You To Read On Paper
When University of North Dakota Professor Virginia Clinton outlined the textbooks required for her classes, she always encouraged her students to save money by purchasing the cheaper digital versions of books rather than physical textbooks. However, each year she found that many of her students continued to show up to class with their physical, paper textbooks. When she asked them why, they responded that despite the obvious advantages of digital copies, they simply preferred reading on paper. After several years of observing this phenomenon, she decided to investigate the matter by reviewing every published study about reading on screens from 2008 on. The results showed that her students might be on to something.
The Brain on Paper
You might have already observed this anecdotally in your personal life. Reading a paperback or magazine in bed has a different effect on your mind and mood than endlessly scrolling on your phone. For many, the difference is a stark contrast. And increasingly, the research is starting to back up these feelings.
For Professor Clinton, she found that for readers of every age group or educational level, from elementary school to college or post-graduate students, readers consistently absorbed more information, and retained it longer when they read from physical paper versus on screens. Further studies have shown specific ways that readers operate differently with physical paper texts over screens. A study published by the American Educational Research Association found that students who read from paper annotated and highlighted texts more, and were better able to maintain their concentration on longer passages when compared to screens.
It appears the differences between the two can come from a variety of factors. “There is a physicality in reading” says developmental psychologist Maryanne Wolf. Evidence suggests that the tactile and tangible experience of reading from paper is noticeable. Readers who use screens report greater decreases in their mental energy, as well as increased difficulty in recalling what they have read. Even readers who choose to read using screens often report missing the physical feelings and sensations of reading from paper.
Part of this can be related to the levels of blue lights that are emitted by screens. While not nearly as intense as levels from sunlight, electronic screens do emit large amounts of blue light, which can reduce contrast and contribute to digital eye strain. Digital eye strain can make it difficult for eyes to focus, which would directly lead to a poorer reading experience.
Screens and Deep Reading
The very real cognitive differences between reading on screens and reading on paper appear to exist even when compared to devices that don’t use traditional blue light. For example, many e-readers such as Amazon’s Kindle use a grey lit background with electric ink to mimic the appearance of a book’s ink text. But researchers have shown that even e-readers cause reader’s behavior to differ from reading on paper. Readers on e-readers continue to skim more, their eyes dart more across the text and focusing is more difficult.
Part of this could come from the conditioning that has already occurred in our brains when it comes to reading on screens. Numerous studies have shown that readers on screens skim more, focus less, and look for key phrases and words rather than systematically reading each and every word as they would when reading on paper.
Researchers have referred to this focused attention to reading material as “deep reading”. When readers are deep reading, they engage with the text in a linear fashion, reading each word in a sentence, then each sentence in a paragraph, then each page in a document. And researchers have often found that the steady focus of deep reading has real cognitive benefits. When readers deep read, they grasp more of the material, they retain information for longer periods of time, and their brains are more attuned to long-term focusing.
What This Means For You
If reading on screens has been shown to decrease information retentions, lower our attention spans and impair our focusing, then is all reading on screens dangerous?
Researchers want to reassure the public that the answer is no. Yes, the kind of deep reading that is associated with reading physical documents such as books on paper has been shown to have real and significant cognitive benefits. But this does not mean that reading on screens is inherently going to cause cognitive impairment. The farthest that researcher Manoush Zoromodi will go, is to recommend that all reading on screens be accompanied by reading on physical paper.
According to Zoromodi, it’s clear that the quick skimming of digital readers and screen reading is here to stay. However, it’s still beneficial to spend time reading in a linear, deep reading manner to encourage and foster the reading and cognitive habits that come from an immersive style of reading. And for that, we will need paper.
For Professor Clinton, the results were clear enough for to change her advice. She now tells her students to purchase physical textbooks if they prefer reading from paper. “It’s enough of a benefit that it’s worth the paper and ink and the cost of the book”.