Reading on Paper versus Screen: See What Science Says About What Your Brain Prefers

Do you ever find yourself printing something to read because you really need to focus on it or pay attention to the content? Have you read something on screen and then later had difficulty recalling the details of what you read? (here’s me, raising my hand)

Turns out that it happens to most of us.

Why is reading on screen instead of on page so much more difficult for some?

Photo Credit: pedrik via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: pedrik via Compfight cc

For starters, some scientists believe that on-screen reading is more physically and mentally taxing, what with that mean old bright light of the monitor glaring in our eyes as we read.

Ah, you say, but there’s e-ink and e-readers with no backlighting. What about those? (Ha! Take that, scientists!)

Well, scientists have an answer for that too. (Bit of a bunch of know-it-alls, aren’t they?)

People who are smarter than the average bear have discovered how the brain processes the written word differently in hardcopy form versus softcopy in this interesting article from Scientific American.

Printed materials create a tactile experience that electronic devices have not even come close to touching (bonus points for the bad pun there). They are also easier to navigate by flipping through pages and provide a wealth of contextual clues about the text and the reader’s place in it. Here’s what they say:

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.

In contrast, most screens, e-readers, smartphones and tablets interfere with intuitive navigation of a text and inhibit people from mapping the journey in their minds.

Instead of hiking the trail yourself, the trees, rocks and moss move past you in flashes with no trace of what came before and no way to see what lies ahead.”

They have a point. I can more easily recall a printed passage, partly because I can picture where it was on a page, which then lets me more easily recall passages related to that one on the same page.

Print has personality.

For me, a printed book is a whole different experience than an e-book. Printed books have personality and individual identities. They have different fonts, paper weights and smells. We can even put our own individual mark on them literally with handwritten marginalia, dogeared corners, or the dreaded book abuse of a broken spine. They are also clunky to carry around, collect dust, and make me choose between taking extra books and extra clothes when I have to fly thanks to stupid airline luggage weight restrictions.

E-books are easy to bring along.

E-books, on the other hand, are rendered in a plain vanilla format in which they all look the same. I also find that I often forget the name of the book or the author since I bypass the cover every time I “open” my Kindle. Unlike print, which often displays this info at the top of alternating pages, the e-page leaves it off in the name of maximizing screen space. I know, I know – I can tap the top and see it, but that’s not the same as the constant unobtrusive reminder you get in print.

However, I love highlighting passages on my Kindle that are particularly well-written and my “book” always fits in my purse. Beside, what’s not to like about being able to haul around dozens – or even hundreds – of books in a slim little volume? My Kindle lets me scoff at those pesky airline restrictions, which is great because nothing’s worse than being stuck on vacation with a lousy book, or worse, no book at all. Shudder

Print or electronic? E-book or p-book?

I seem to have fallen into a pattern of reading on my Kindle and then buying hard copies of “keepers” or non-fiction titles that I really need to deep dive into or want to have for reference.

What about you? Post a comment and let me know!

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