Book lovers have long debated whether paper books (so traditional) are better than ebooks, and more often than not, the pro-paper argument is centered on feelings. There’s just something so intrinsically pleasing about holding a thick book in your hand: the way the book smells so darn good, the feeling of anticipation you get when you can physically rip through the pages of a good romance or thriller (or when you’re reading Harry Potter for the fifth time).
On the other hand, with technology changing every part of our lives, from how we find our soul mates to how we figure out our dream jobs, ebooks are the inevitable evolution of reading. We know how we feel about it, but we wanted to know the facts. Here’s what science has to tell us about how reading on a device affects our brain.
We Skim Text… Even Novels
First, reading on a device changes the way that our brain focuses on texts. In a 2005 study, Ziming Liu of San Jose State University investigated how reading behavior has changed over the past 10 years with the introduction of digital reading. After a long and comprehensive scientific process, Ziming concluded that more time browsing and scanning is endemic of screen-based reading, as opposed to the concentrated reading and in-depth critical thinking he saw when people read text on paper. With his research duplicated over numerous platforms, both scientific and personal, it’s clear that reading on a device has, in fact, changed the way our brains react to a large body of text.
Our Visual Scanning Patterns Are Different from the Way We Read Paperbacks
Not only does device reading make us more prone to skimming, but the way we skim text changes too. In a notable 2006 study about screen reading, Jakob Nielsen recorded the way in which 232 users looked at thousands of websites. We know that while skimming a traditional paperback, users read in the shape of a T — they read the first few lines completely and then scan straight down the middle.
Interestingly enough, when reading on a device, Nielsen found that people read in an F shaped pattern — they read the first few lines completely, scan down for the next header and then browse down the left hand margin. This realization has dramatically shaped the way content creators are publishing their work, from opting for bold and informative headers to genres like the listicle becoming pervasive on popular blog sites.
The Problem With Creating a Culture of Skimmers
According to Maryanne Wolf, director of the Center for Reading and Language at Tufts University, the culture of skimming that has been perpetuated by devices can lead to some pretty grave consequences. “We need to understand the value of what we may be losing when we skim text so rapidly that we skip the precious milliseconds of deep reading processes,” she warns in an article for Neiman Reports. “For it is within these moments — and these processes in our brain — that we might reach our own important insights and breakthroughs.”
The Many Bright Sides of eBooks
Granted, digital tablets and e-readers have served us widely, and we would be remiss not to mention all the wonderful things that ebooks have afforded us. From translating texts quicker than ever before to being able to access millions of books with a few taps and a swipe, ebooks offer us a level of convenience that is changing access to information in a profound and powerful way. And not all devices are equal offenders, either. A 2013 study published in PLOS ONE found that LCD screens offer far greater visual fatigue than ebook screens that use electronic ink.
However, from the extensive body of research on screen reading, it’s clear that we simply read differently on a device than we do on a piece of paper. Although there’s no research as of yet that confirms the long-term consequences of screen reading, it’s a great reminder that there’s no substitute quite as fulfilling as getting lost in a good ol’ fashioned book . Consider your large and long overdue Amazon book order justified.
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