In Ray Bradbury’s story Fahrenheit 451, books are outlawed, and any that are found are promptly burned. When asked where he got his inspiration for the story, Bradbury stated the book was a commentary on how media (he was referring to television, but the Internet now has even compounded this effect) has reduced interest in reading fiction and literature.1

While we haven’t descended into an era where knowledge is deemed unfit for the general populace, we are in a digital age where reading printed books is on the decline...or is it?

Scientists are now showing that reading, particularly reading fiction, is a good workout for your brain, and if you missed that article, click the link to read more. Even though we understand reading is good for us, is there a difference between reading printed books versus digital books? We feel the same curiosity, after all, but what happens in the brain when we actually see the words?

The Great Debate: Printed Books Vs E-readers

In the past ten or fifteen years, technology has transformed how we read. The digital world is changing how we read nearly everything, from news to literature. eReaders such as the Kindle and Nook dominate the reading market, and it’s hard to resist having hundreds (or thousands) of books on one device.

However, print isn’t dead! According to Nielsen in 2015, books sales in the UK went up 4% in bookshops while ebook sales decreased by 4%. Some of the blame may be on climbing ebook prices, driving consumers to seek printed books instead. Children’s books tend to be printed, also, hopefully seeding a future love of reading.2

But, why would digital books not be as good for us? To answer this question, we have to look at research done by neuroscientists and other specialists. You may want to consider some of this research the next time you choose between a printed book and a digital one, including:

Digital Books Affect Your Sleep In A Bad Way

A recent article found that sleep duration and quality have declined over the past 50 years, adversely impacting general health. Perhaps all this innovation may not always be a good thing, because 90% of Americans surveyed used an electronic device before bed at least several times a week.

Researchers found evening exposure to a light-emitting device (including a phone or Kindle or tablet) delays the circadian clock, suppresses melatonin production, and potentially impacts health and safety. Participants who read digital books took longer to fall asleep and they spend less time in REM sleep, so they felt less rested compared to participants who read printed books.3

Print Increases Reading Comprehension

As textbooks jump on the digital bandwagon, students of all ages are now receiving information from a variety of mediums. However, this new usage brings about a wealth of new data, and scientists can look for differences between reading printed and digital words.

In one study, readers were given a short story. Half read it from a book, and the other half used a Kindle. Then, everyone took a test over the story. The result? Kindle readers scored significantly worse when asked questions about plot reconstruction.4

Anne Mangen, lead researcher for the study, hypothesized that “the haptic and tactile feedback of a Kindle does not provide the same support for mental reconstruction of a story as a print pocket book does”.5 Basically, when we read a real book, we use touch to fixate on the paper, and this somehow works as some kind of sensory offload, supporting the visual words we are seeing and then processing in our brains.

On That Same Note, Students Learn More From Printed Textbooks

In another study by Mangen and her team, students were given texts to read in print and on a computer screen in PDF format. Students who read the information on paper scored much higher in comprehension tests compared to students who read the digital PDF.6

As educational reading continues to convert to digital formats, perhaps we should slow down and heed the research findings of scientists.

There is obviously a difference in how our brains perceive words on paper versus those on a screen. Why?

Paper Or Plasma? What Is Best For The Brain?

When we read on screens, our mind tends to shift and dart around the screen. Neuroscience calls this “non-linear” reading. Our brains haven’t adapted to reading online very well. When we engage in deep reading, the kind of immersive reading we do when we get into a good novel or we are studying in a textbook, the brain has a tough time maintaining this state with digital products.

When we don’t use the skills required to deep read, we lose them. By reading printed material, we exercise that part of the brain.7

Maryanne Wolf, a neuroscientist who also loves literature, discussed her book Reader, Come Home in a recent interview. She mentioned how the circuits in our brain are plastic, allowing us to form new connections. However, this plasticity is both a strength and weakness when it comes to reading digital media, where we are forced to process vast amounts of information rapidly.

When we read things quickly or skim over them, we don’t allow slower processes, which go beyond basic understanding. Digital sources also skip over the processes we need to build analytical and empathetic connections in the brain.8

You need only examine yourself. Perhaps you have already noticed how the quality of your attention has changed the more you read on screens and digital devices.

Maryanne Wolf in Reader, Come Home

Creating A Happy Brain In A Digital World

While the research doesn’t say you should immediately burn your eReader, it does say we should continue to examine how our brains learn when we read digital media versus printed media. Fostering a love of reading in children is important to create happy brains in adults, and sometimes, the shiny new thing isn’t necessarily better.

Leaders in this digital age are bombarded with information, but now we know our brains tend to skim digital words.

If you find yourself struggling to remember pertinent facts from something you read online, it might be best to grab some recycled paper and print it out. To learn more about how your brain functions, check out the i4 Neuroleader Program!

1. Johnston AEB. Ray Bradbury: Fahrenheit 451 Misinterpreted. LA Weekly. 2017.
2 Nielsen. Nielsen Book Research: 2015 in Review. The Nielsen Company. 2016.
3. Chang AM, Aeschbach D, Duffy JF, Czeisler CA. Evening use of light-emitting eReaders negatively affects sleep, circadian timing, and next-morning alertness. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2014;112(2):1232-7. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1418490112
4. Mangen A, Olivier G, Velay JL. Comparing comprehension of a long text read in print book and on Kindle: Where in the text and when in the story? Frontiers in Psychology. 2019.
5. Flood A. Readers absorb less on Kindles than on paper, study finds. The Guardian. 2014.
6. Mangen A, Walgermo BR, Brønnick K. Reading linear texts on paper versus computer screen: Effects on reading comprehension. International Journal of Educational Research. 2013;58:61-68. doi: 10.1016/j.ijer.2012.12.002
7. Liu Z. Reading behaviour in the digital environment: Changes in reading behaviour over the past ten years. Journal of Documentation. 2005;61(6):700-712. doi: 10.1108/00220410510632040
8. Chen A. A neuroscientist explains what tech does to the reading brain. The Verge: Vox Media. 2019.

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