I have a Kindle, but I keep finding myself picking up novels at the many used-books stores in the college town where I live in. First off, they are usually (just a bit) cheaper than the Kindle versions: $4 or $5 instead of $7.99. And I like to spend as much time outside as possible, and I'm always worried about getting the Kindle wet. And, well, I just like my paper books better — though the Kindle is fabulous for travel and I'm grateful I can "pack" three or four books on a device. But this only goes for novels or novel-like nonfiction books — I read quite a bit online, including long reported articles, and I use my e-reader for chapter-focused, less linear nonfiction books.
It turns out there's probably something to my preference: Recent studies show that most of us don't absorb certain types information as well from e-readers as we do from print books. That's because our brains have adapted to reading electronically — we're more primed for distractions there — so instead of reading down the page, readers find themselves scanning above and to the side.
If you've ever finished several hours of reading online to find that it takes a few minutes to "settle" into reading a paper book, and you find yourself scanning the edges of the page, or wanting to click on an unfamiliar word, you're not alone. Experts call this "non-linear reading," and it's useful when you're online or using an e-reader, allowing you to catch related articles, scan images and captions, highlight information, take notes, click on links for more information on a certain subject, and read comments about what other people think of the issue — but it is, fundamentally, a different kind of reading.
According to research by San Jose State University researchers, our reading has changed as we read more online. Especially when it comes to story-heavy books like novels, historical fiction, biographies and nonfiction books that rely heavily on timelines (or if it's a text you really want to immerse yourself in), a paper book is best for retaining information.
A joint study by the University of Stavanger in Norway and the Nice-Sophia Antipolis University, France made a discovery: "Fifty adult participants read a 28-page mystery story in either a print, or on a Kindle. After reading, subjects completed a series of questionnaires measuring cognitive and emotional aspects. In addition, a questionnaire assessing literary reading preferences and 'haptic dissonance' was administered a week after the reading session. Results show that print readers performed better than Kindle readers when they were asked to sort story events into chronological order."
It's amazing to think that our brains have changed from reading on the Internet versus paper books, but neuroplasticity is one of the reasons human beings are so adaptable in general, so it shouldn't be such a huge surprise that time online changes the way we read.
Manoush Zomorodi, managing editor and host of WNYC's New Tech City, who has reported on this issue, explains in the audio interview with PRI above: “The problem is that 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.”
Ideally, we would have both abilities: What some experts are calling the "bi-literate" brain (hear more about that in the interview stream above). Reading well online as well as off — and being able to toggle between the two types of reading easily — looks to be a skill worth cultivating.
It's worth teaching kids about both kinds of reading too, since their brains are even more plastic than an adult's, which also means that it will be easier for them to learn how to switch back and forth between reading styles. The quiet focus needed to absorb (and enjoy) a novel is a skill that needs to be both learned and practiced, and using e-readers and reading online is a skill too — and in a digital world, kids need to know how to do that kind of reading too.
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