Paper or plastic? It’s a question we get asked a lot these days, but not only at the grocery store. As we move further into the digital age, there is a growing debate about the effectiveness of reading a book in a traditional, paper-based format versus reading it in on an eReader or other screen-based device. The results are still coming in, but there is growing data that suggest the tried-and-true method may be the better way for our brains to understand and store information for later recall.
In a 2005 study, Ziming Liu of San Jose State University found that people who read digitally do more jumping around. They’re looking for keywords to get as much information as possible in a short amount of time, and they don’t take in every word. Skimming and scanning are two reading techniques that are not suggested for full text comprehension – by their definitions, they are techniques to use when you want to get a general idea of the material and a specific piece of information, respectively. They are referred to as nonlinear reading, they are not immersive experiences, and incomplete comprehension is the result. Paper-based reading, on the other hand, is linear, and it allows for immersion in the text, with higher comprehension of the material as a result.
In the April 11, 2013 issue of “Scientific American,” developmental psychologist and cognitive scientist Maryanne Wolf of Tufts University said, “There is physicality in reading.” As far as our brains are concerned text on a page is a tangible part of our physical world. Our brains treat letters as physical objects because it doesn’t have any other way of understanding them; it creates a new circuit for reading by pulling together disparate areas devoted to other abilities, such as spoken language, motor coordination, and vision.
In addition, the brain may also place text into a type of map, as if it were a physical landscape. When we read, the text in that map is anchored to structure. Anne Mangen of the University of Stavenger in Norway believes the tactility of a book plays a big role in the way we map out the text’s “terrain.” It makes it easier to navigate, with our hands and recollections of text placement on the page serving as bookmarks to key passages. Studies of both teenagers and adults who read on paper instead of on an eReader showed that the latter category had more trouble putting plot events in chronological order and were more likely to answer comprehension questions incorrectly.
All this is not to say that reading digital material is a bad thing. As our technology continues to improve, and as we are exposed to digitized text at earlier ages, we may find new ways to increase our comprehension of electronically viewed words. In the meantime, it may be a good idea to read the material we need to comprehend more thoroughly in a more traditional format.