Are you a traditional print-based reader, or are you following the digital reading trend? You might not be aware of this, but the medium you choose actually affects the whole reading experience, from how pleasurable you find the process to how well you comprehend and remember what you’ve read. These and more factors are all dependent on whether you’re reading on a flat screen or with a printed book in your hand.
A great deal of scientific literature has been devoted to how reading affects our brain. Researchers have discovered that reading a story actually activates brain regions that are associated with and necessary for the physical act we’re reading about (such as swimming, cycling, driving, or fighting), even though our bodies aren’t in fact going through those motions.
Neuroscientists also discovered that it’s not just physical activities that are replicated during reading. For instance, when we’re reading odor-related words such as coffee or perfume, the olfactory cortex – the brain region associated with the sense of smell – lights up.
A study at Emory University explains how metaphors, a linguistic device used by authors to convey meaning through bold imagery, also helps activate associated brain regions. If you read about a velvet voice, the region of your brain associated with sensory stimuli and recognition is activated. The study (appropriately and aptly titled “Metaphorically Feeling”) emphasizes how language is physiologically and mentally experienced.
Reading activates and engages your entire body and brain. Now we have a new question: how does the medium affect this experience? Does it enhance or impede the neurological functioning stimulated by the reading process?
Ever since the introduction of tablets and e-readers, digital reading has come in for a fair amount of backlash. Hardcore print book fans consider it inferior, while others even go so far as to call it an ineffective and superficial way of reading.
The argument that technology changes the way we read is not in question, and scientists back up these and other claims with their study findings.
While some studies argue that reading on screens impedes comprehension, there is a fair amount of opposing literature that argues against this conclusion. Reading on screens doesn’t compromise reading comprehension, they say, but there is no cut and dried answer; the study results are at best confusing and rather inconclusive on the matter.
Reading the Old-Fashioned Way
Reading lets us see through another person’s eyes, and this experience seems to intensify when we read in a way that engages our sense of touch. Interacting with a book’s pages, touching the page as you turn it, moving your eyes as you read line after line provides a unique sensory experience that many people complain is still missing from e-reading. A tablet cannot yet offer the complete sensory package that’s part and parcel of reading a print book.
But aside from this, reading print books seems to favor comprehension. Studies show that e-reading is cognitively heavy which might explain why we cannot recall much of what we read on screens after we’re done.
To make matters more complicated, there’s also a widely held belief that people approach print reading in a more focused and serious manner than they do e-reading. We get used to using a skim and scan method when surfing the web, and that superficial process seems to translate to e-reading in general. How many times have you printed out a compelling article just because you wanted to experience it more viscerally?
What is more, many people argue that reading is a spatial as well as a cognitive effort. When we read we unconsciously chart our reading journey by flagging key moments in a story in relation to where we read about them on the page.
For instance, you’ll instinctively remember that the horrible massacre in the crime novel you’re reading was described in the second paragraph on the right-hand page of the previous chapter. You don’t get these physical markers when you’re e-reading, because one page is replaced by an identical one as you click and/or scroll, providing no clue as to how to pinpoint significant plot twists spatially.
This cognitive landscape we make up in our minds as we read appears to facilitate comprehension, reasoning, and storytelling. It helps us structure what we read in a logical sequence, something that is compromised in e-reading, it seems.
Ultimately it’s a personal choice. You might prefer reading digitally or remain faithful to your earlier reading habits – and your choice might change over time. It’s a highly subjective issue; people don’t always agree even about their own reading experiences, and the impact on comprehension. It will require more research, and more reading, to find out if and how this matter can be resolved.
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