Maria Konnikova collects evidence and hypotheses about how the shift from print to online texts has changed the experience of reading. She begins with reference to Maryanne Wolf, whose book Proust and the Squid examines the history of the science and development of the reading brain from antiquity to the twenty-first century. Konnikova writes that after her book was published, she received hundreds of letters from readers: “a theme began to emerge: the more reading moved online, the less students seemed to understand.” Wolf decided that another book was necessary to investigate why use of online texts resulted in superficial reading.
Konnikova cites experts and research into how online reading changes the reading process:
- Anne Mangen, a professor at the National Centre for Reading Education and Research at Norway’s University of Stavanger, believes that the reading device, whether a printed book or electronic screen, affects reading. With electronic devices, the intangibility, the layout of words, the scrolling screen (as opposed to the turning of printed pages), and the ability to click on hyperlinks makes the physiology of the reading experience different from that of a printed book. She also studies “how the format of reading material may affect not just eye movement or reading strategy but broader processing abilities.” She hypothesizes that people prefer printed books “because the nature of the object itself has deeper repercussions for reading and comprehension.”
- Ziming Liu, professor at San Jose State University, researches digital reading and the use of e-books. A review of earlier studies that compared print and digital reading combined with his own research revealed several changes in the reading process. When reading on screen, people tend to browse and scan for keywords, whereas on printed pages they concentrate more on following the text more linearly: “Skimming, Liu concluded, had become the new reading.” When skimming, readers do not stop to think about what they’re reading. Further, we tire more easily when reading on a computer screen because of the constant effort to filter out distractions like hyperlinks, and our eyes may fatigue easily because of the need to readjust to frequently changing layouts, colors, and contrasts.
- Mary Dyson, a psychologist at the University of Reading who studies how we perceive and interact with typography and design, has found that the layout of a text can significantly affect the reading process. When lines of text on a screen are too long, moving the eyes from one line to the next becomes more difficult. We read more efficiently when text is arranged in a single column rather than in multiple columns or section. Even the font, color, and size of text all affect the reading experience. All of these parameters can change more quickly on a screen than in print, and the mental and physical effort of adjusting to these changes can make electronic reading harder than print reading.
One of Wolf’s concerns is that digital formats negatively affect the “sophisticated comprehension processes” of what she calls deep reading:
“Reading is a bridge to thought,” she says. “And it’s that process that I think is the real endangered aspect of reading. In the young, what happens to the formation of the complete reading circuitry? Will it be short-circuited and have less time to develop the deep-reading processes? And in already developed readers like you and me, will those processes atrophy?”
However, it’s possible that the ability to focus attention rather than reading ability is what suffers in digital reading. Some research has found that people who read on devices not connected to the Internet achieve the same comprehension and retention of material as people who read printed books.
This article complements the previous one nicely. Here Tom Chatfield reports in The Guardian on research into how writing by hand—with pen or pencil on paper—differs from typing on a computer.
Since writing and reading are necessarily intimately related, Chatfield begins with some recent research into digital reading:
- In her new book Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World, linguistics professor Naomi Baron presents results of a survey of reading preferences conducted among 300 university students in the U.S., Japan, Slovakia, and Germany: “92% of respondents replied that it was hard copy that best allowed them to concentrate.”
- Researchers Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer compared the effectiveness among students of writing longhand notes vs. typing on a laptop: “Their conclusion: the relative slowness of writing by hand demands heavier ‘mental lifting,’ forcing students to summarise rather than to quote verbatim – in turn tending to increase conceptual understanding, application and retention.”
- At Indiana University, psychologist Karin James conducted a study with five-year-old children who did not yet know how to read or write. She asked the children to reproduce a letter or shape by typing into a computer, drawing onto a blank sheet of paper, and tracing over a dotted outline. “ When the children were drawing freehand, an MRI scan during the test showed activation across areas of the brain associated in adults with reading and writing. The other two methods showed no such activation.”
Yet, as Chatfield points out, while writing on paper may have benefits over typing, computers offer us the ability to conduct research and to gather and collate information. He concludes:
Above all, it seems to me, we must abandon the notion that there is only one way of reading, or that technology and paper are engaged in some implacable war.
In this recent article Lauren Martin refers to a 2012 article, Your Brain on Fiction, in The New York Times by Annie Murphy Paul that reports on neuroscience research into how reading fiction affects the brain.
What I like about Martin’s article is that she offers a great description of what getting lost in a good book feels like. As Martin explains:
Reading about the struggles and triumphs of fictional characters has the power to make us understand our own struggles and the struggles of those around us better.
Through reading, we develop a strong “theory of mind,” which enables us to understand and comprehend the emotional cues of others as if we were experiencing the emotions ourselves.
If you’ve ever gotten lost in a good book, you know what Martin means:
Only reading can change your brain so much you literally feel like you’re in another world. Only fiction has the power to physically change your state of mind.
Only a good book can change your life and make you believe you’re experiencing life in another dimension.