The Reading Brain in the Digital Age

book_kindlePaper v screens? Is one better than the other or do they both have a role to play? This 2013 Scientific American article, The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: Why Paper Still Beats Screens, asks does the reading process of a digital or mobile text cause our brains to respond differently? Early studies pointed to reading text on paper as a better way to digest information, whereas current studies are not so conclusive.

What they found is that the act of reading may be better for comprehension, especially when navigating long texts, as the book provides a tactile experience. Screens may “drain” more of our brains causing people to approach a digital text with a mind that is not open to learning.

The article reminds us that humans are not ‘born with brain circuits dedicated to reading’ – it is a skill that we learn and hone throughout our lives. If this is the case then why should the actual form the text takes be an issue?

What, then, is it about a book that works? Paper has a ‘more obvious topography’, with an open book having a set way of presenting information (having eight corners), with the act of turning a page a natural rhythm to let you know how far you have come, and how far you still have to go. In contrast it is stated that e-readers ‘interfere with intuitive navigation of a text and inhibit people from mapping the journey in their minds’.

When comparing reading paper documents and on-screen documents, a comparison of pdf reading showed that the paper pdf seemed to be better suited to absorption. Books also give a sense of serendipity and control, with readers preferring paper for depth reading. It has been suggested that screens are mentally tiring, with scrolling in particular being mentally draining.

More recently it has been proposed that it is the attitude of the reader that may differ in how they navigate texts – they may not bring as much mental effort to a screen, seeing it as not “serious reading”. People that read on screen also tend to take more short cuts, spending more time browsing, scanning and hunting for keywords.

Importantly, the author surmises that this may not be true for a new generation of readers who will grow up without the sentimental attachment to paper, and understand the convenience of the digital product. A comparison is made to the music sector where people, despite initial resistance, now love ‘curating, organising and sharing digital music today’. Maybe the future of digital reading lies in social sharing?

The final question asked is why try and make the digital reading experience mirror the paper one? After all for many the ‘… convenience of a slim portable e-reader outweighs any attachment they might have to the feel of paper books’. As with digital exhibits (which I’ve been immersed in lately!) the technology should be used for what it does best – provide rich media that extend the reader’s experience to enhance and deepen learning in a convenient, portable format available anywhere, anytime. Perhaps, instead of lamenting the end of the paper text as we know it, let’s ‘… turn scrolling into a strength rather than a weakness’ and use each form for what they’re best suited to.


Since writing this piece I came across an article (via @chess65) Your paper brain and your Kindle brain aren’t the same thing, which notes, similar to the above, that our brains process reading very differently: ‘… many of us have adapted to reading online just too well. And if you don’t use the deep reading part of your brain, you lose the deep reading part of your brain’. The article concludes that in future we’ll need a ‘discerning “bi-literate” brain’ that responds to the variety of texts available to us – both on screen and on paper.


4 thoughts on “The Reading Brain in the Digital Age

    • lyndakelly61 says:

      Thanks for your reply – I don’t think that’s what this post is saying. There are uses for both digital and analogue text. The point in exhibition text for example, is not to ‘go back to’ traditional forms of text in exhibitions, it’s to use the best medium for the message, the layout and the visitor. Many, many years of audience research tell us that text is not the most effective ways to reach visitors with content as they rarely read it, or they fade away after about the first five minutes… See for example work done at the Science Musuem, London and Valerie Beer’s work – these studies may seem old but in my 25 years museum audience research experience they are still relevant! Thanks again.

  1. EMC says:

    hi perhaps we are talking at cross purposes but my comment was shorthand for:
    –online screens don’t easily allow people to position themselves and feel in control like physical books do (and there is a longer argument to be made here about embodiment and spatial help to remembering literature)
    –the simple act of controlling pages is far too subtle but powerful to simulate with the same visceral impact using digital media
    –most importantly, the brain cannot easily spatially navigate AND read text at the same time and it is coincidentally why gamers are better at avoiding car accidents while driving and talking on a cellphone (and I have written about this a decade or more before) hence my main comment that VR should not just try to imitate books. (Playing With The Past, Springer, 2011).
    “What they found is that the act of reading may be better for comprehension, especially when navigating long texts, as the book provides a tactile experience. Screens may “drain” more of our brains causing people to approach a digital text with a mind that is not open to learning.”
    Hence yes “use the best medium for the message”.

  2. lyndakelly61 says:

    Thanks for clartifying this. I do like your gamer example. I’m wondering in future where children growing up will not have the same brain wiring as we do and how they will navigate texts in whatever form they choose. We live in an interesting world!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s