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The brain reader in the digital age: differences between paper and screen

I share with you a post that I’ve written for the blog brother of the Psychology of information: The Money Cognitive. CGD is a blog dedicated to the cognitive science (the interdisciplinary study of what the mind is, how it works and how it originated). In this case, the reason for sharing the post is two-fold: on the one hand, it celebrates the international day of the book, and the post talks about the differences of the brain between reading on paper and on screen; on the other, the psychological implications of the studies that are referenced in the post are clear, which allows you to follow the line of pick up in this blog post studies that reference the reading. I hope you find interesting: you can read the post of EGC in this link.

Today April 23 is celebrated the international day of the book, a technology venerable without which humanity would not be what it is. In recent years, with the emergence of electronic devices that allow the reading on the display, it has generated a lively controversy about how the technology we use to read change the way we read.

Ferris Jabr has written a comprehensive and informed article for Scientific American in which he reviews some of the main findings on the differences between reading on paper and on screen.

I will summarize the key findings from that review Jabr, inviting as always the reader to see the original text for a more thorough reading.

In the first place, the reading involves a kind of creation of a mental map of the space of the text. The letters are recognized by the brain as physical objects, thanks to the participation during the reading circuits of the brain specialized in the recognition of objects. And that physical examination assumed that the text in its entirety is perceived as a physical space, something like a map built using a mental representation of the text: the meanings of the text happen to be linked to the structure.

As well, there are studies that show that, at the time of trying to locate a information, you usually remember where it appeared in the text.

We might recall that we passed the red farmhouse near the start of the trail before we started climbing uphill through the forest; in a similar way, we remember that we read about Mr. Darcy rebuffing Elizabeth Bennett on the bottom of the left-hand page in one of the earlier chapters.

Paper books have a topography more apparent that digital books: we find two domains, the pages left and right, with a total of eight corners which help us to orient ourselves: a reader can focus on a single page without losing sight of the whole text. And this physical space helps to create a coherent representation of the map of the text. Books digintales interfere with our navigation intuitive of the text, making difficult the creation of this mental space:

A reader of digital text might scroll through a seamless stream of words, tap forward one page at a time, or use the search function to immediately locate a particular phrase—but it is difficult to see any one passage in the context of the entire text. As an analogy, imagine if Google Maps allowed people to navigate street by individual street, as well as to teleport to any specific address, but prevented them from zooming out to see a neighborhood, state or country. Although e-readers like the Kindle and tablets like the iPad re-create pagination—sometimes complete with page numbers, headers and illustrations the screen only displays a single virtual page: it is there and then it is gone. Instead of hiking the trail yourself, the trees, rocks and moss move past you in flashes with no trace of what came before and no way to see what lies ahead.

And that difficulty in the creation of the mental space could be detrimental to the understanding of what we read, as suggested by certain studies. In addition, the screens and e-readers interfere with two additional aspects: the serendípia and the sense of control:

People report that they enjoy flipping to a previous section of a paper book when a sentence surfaces a memory of something they read earlier, for example, or quickly scanning ahead on a whim. People also like to have as much control over a text as possible—to highlight with chemical ink, easily write notes to themselves in the margins as well as deform the paper however they choose.

Because of these differences, at least three large studies in institutions of higher education indicate that when you want to delve into a text, the students preferred the paper book to the screens.

In the second place, the compression reading involves the consolidation of what the read in the long-term memory. At least one study from 2003 suggests that, although the differences in the memory of the short-term when you read on paper and on screen are minimal, the differences in the long-term are significant.

Other researchers suggest that people understand less of what they read when they do on a screen because screen reading is more costly, both physically and mentally: the screens are projected light on the eyes of the reader, which generates visual fatigue; in addition, an extended reading on-screen generates higher levels of stress and fatigue than reading on paper.

In the third place, a line of research seems to indicate that the people are faced to the reading on the display with a lower level of effort than if they did it on paper:

Subconsciously, many people may think of reading on a computer or tablet as a less serious affair than reading on paper. Based on a detailed 2005 survey of 113 people in northern California, Ziming Liu of San Jose State University concluded that people reading on screens take a lot of shortcuts—they spend more time browsing, scanning and hunting for keywords compared with people reading on paper, and are more likely to read a document once, and only once.

People who read on-screen seem less inclined to implement strategies in regulation of learning, that is to say,

strategies such as setting specific goals, rereading difficult sections and checking how much one has understood along the way.

Findings such as those outlined by Ferris Jabr have led several companies to experiment with electronic devices to create an experience that is as close as possible to the reading on paper. But Jabr makes an intelligent question: why not let the reading on the display to evolve into something completely different? And is that the screens can offer experiences readers that the paper may not, using their own strong points:

When it comes to intensively reading long pieces of plain text, paper and ink may still have the advantage. But text is not the only way to read.

You can read the original text of Jabr in Scientific American.