Do e-readers reduce our ability to learn?

Like many, I once swore I’d never resort to an e-reader. Also like many, the lure of convenient, in my case trainbased reading, has been too strong, and I crumbled. I love my Kindle. And the other one too, the one with the milky white screen I read in bed. But the experience isn’t perfect – few are I guess – and so I read with interest this lengthy, well-written article in Scientific American, published last month, on The Reading Brain in the Digital Age. In it, the author draws on a wide range of mostly small scale studies into the impact of reading print versus reading on screen, on things like ability to retain information, read longer passages, and comprehend more complex arguments.

I took away the sense that print may have the edge in the case of intensive reading, but that any difference may be a transitory thing as our attitudes adjust to what’s fast becoming a new norm. This is certainly an oversimplification of a good and balanced piece. But I was particularly fascinated by this description of the way in which ‘actual’ books are easier to navigate, and thus – probably – more easier to recreate in our minds.

Beyond treating individual letters as physical objects, the human brain may also perceive a text in its entirety as a kind of physical landscape. When we read, we construct a mental representation of the text in which meaning is anchored to structure. The exact nature of such representations remains unclear, but they are likely similar to the mental maps we create of terrain—such as mountains and trails—and of man-made physical spaces, such as apartments and offices. Both anecdotally and in published studies, people report that when trying to locate a particular piece of written information they often remember where in the text it appeared. 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.

In most cases, paper books have more obvious topography than onscreen text. An open paperback presents a reader with two clearly defined domains—the left and right pages—and a total of eight corners with which to orient oneself. A reader can focus on a single page of a paper book without losing sight of the whole text: one can see where the book begins and ends and where one page is in relation to those borders. One can even feel the thickness of the pages read in one hand and pages to be read in the other. Turning the pages of a paper book is like leaving one footprint after another on the trail—there’s a rhythm to it and a visible record of how far one has traveled. All these features not only make text in a paper book easily navigable, they also make it easier to form a coherent mental map of the text.

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