The Science of Reading Actual Books

One of the things I love about living in the 21st Century is the watching tech fads come and go. Three years ago there were predictions that brick and mortar schools were going to be replaced by Khan Academy and other on-line options, that low income students could forego the diploma for internet badges. I still imagine how silly that would look on a resume or CV. Still, serious people, smart people, tried to build academic visions around such nonsense.

The problem with tech hype is that it is hype. Slapping the adjective digital in front of an idea doesn’t make it better, or what it replaces obsolete. Think of digital music, then consider the booming vinyl industry, and how it’s comeback is shaking the music industry. It’s the same with digital books. I love books and I love my Kindle, but it seems that our brains process the experience of reading physical books in significantly different ways.  Consider this excerpt from Arts.mic:

It’s no secret that reading is good for you. Just six minutes of reading is enough to reduce stress by 68%, and numerous studies have shown that reading keeps your brain functioning effectively as you age. One study even found that elderly individuals who read regularly are 2.5 times less likely to develop Alzheimer’s than their peers. But not all forms of reading are created equal.

The debate between paper books and e-readers has been vicious since the first Kindle came out in 2007. Most arguments have been about the sentimental versus the practical, between people who prefer how paper pages feel in their hands and people who argue for the practicality of e-readers. But now science has weighed in, and the studies are on the side of paper books.

Reading in print helps with comprehension. 

A 2014 study found that readers of a short mystery story on a Kindle were significantly worse at remembering the order of events than those who read the same story in paperback. Lead researcher Anne Mangen of Norway’s Stavanger University concluded that “the haptic and tactile feedback of a Kindle does not provide the same support for mental reconstruction of a story as a print pocket book does.”

Our brains were not designed for reading, but have adapted and created new circuits to understand letters and texts. The brain reads by constructing a mental representation of the text based on the placement of the page in the book and the word on the page.

The tactile experience of a book aids this process, from the thickness of the pages in your hands as you progress through the story to the placement of a word on the page. Mangen hypothesizes that the difference for Kindle readers “might have something to do with the fact that the fixity of a text on paper, and this very gradual unfolding of paper as you progress through a story is some kind of sensory offload, supporting the visual sense of progress when you’re reading.”

It turns out reading on screens change the way we read. The article goes on to say:

As we increasingly read on screens, our reading habits have adapted to skim text rather than really absorb the meaning. A 2006 study found that people read on screens in an “F” pattern, reading the entire top line but then only scanning through the text along the left side of the page. This sort of nonlinear reading reduces comprehension and actually makes it more difficult to focus the next time you sit down with a longer piece of text.

The more you read on a screen, the harder it is to focus on longer texts and maintain concentration.  The answer, according to some, is to return to slow reading, to dedicate 30-45 minutes a day to reading away from technology.  Slow reading increases empathy and also helps with sleep patterns.

There are many good reasons to pick up a good book. As our world become more complex, we need a society of people who can engage with social problems in-depth. Now my guilty pleasure of reading fiction has a higher purpose. Happy reading!


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