Your Brain on eReaders: Evidence Suggests that Reading from Paper might be more Conducive for Learning

The translation of stories into paper books took thousands of years and over two decades to accumulate on my humble book shelf. My brain on the other hand… has been evolving to read in codex form for over 1500 years. These are the things I tell myself to justify my difficulties with reading on digital screens.

Apparently, I’m not the only bibliophile to be challenged by the joys of paper reading and the convenience of eReaders. According to a recent article in the Scientific American, “reading on paper still boasts unique advantages.”  The article cites research indicating that reading from physical formats gives us the possibility of creating a map of the textual narrative and eReaders lack this mental representation. Most eReaders are improving at superhuman speeds, but they are missing the intuitive navigational features that we have become accustomed to learning from.

Anne Mangen of the University of Stavanger (Norway):

The ease with which you can find out the beginning, end and everything in between and the constant connection to your path, your progress in the text, might be some way of making it less taxing cognitively, so you have more free capacity for comprehension.

The energy required to navigate multipurpose screen is taxing on our brain and the distraction creates a less nourishing environment for material absorption. That said, I would add that since most screens are also used to navigate web spaces, our brains may be confused. Perhaps all of those ours on Twitter and Facebook have also trained us to consume narratives that are not meant to be absorbed?

The challenge for makers of eReaders would lie in the design of eBooks to be less exhaustive and more cognitively intuitive. This may mean that readers understand the best device (including paper formats) for the best medium. Long narratives like Moby Dick for example might be best in paper while comics and visually heavy magazines will be better on tablets.