It’s true for young and old, writes Ferris Jabr in Scientific American. It’s true for conventional readers of magazines and books and for e-book readers, who “admit that for some reason they still prefer reading on paper; and to those who have already vowed to forgo tree pulp entirely.”
The reason that paper outperforms screens has to with the way that we learn to read. While it’s true that symbols are abstract, learning to read is tactile. We have no innate abilities, no brain wiring that has evolved to read. Instead, learning to read borrows from existing neural circuitry such as spoken language, motor coordination and vision.
Some of these repurposed brain regions are specialized for object recognition, such as how to tell an apple from an orange. “We learn to recognize each letter by its particular arrangement of lines, curves and hollow spaces,” explains Jabr. “Some of the earliest forms of writing, such as Sumerian cuneiform, began as characters shaped like the objects they represented—a person’s head, an ear of barley, a fish. Some researchers see traces of these origins in modern alphabets: C as crescent moon, S as snake.”
Object recognition becomes obvious when monitoring babies’ brain circuitry for reading. It’s very active when they trace out letters but not when they type the same letters on a keyboard.
Tactical areas of the brain are involved not only in learning to read but in reading itself. The physical act of holding a book, newspaper or magazine involves mapping out the territory of the sheet and pages. When I want to find a phase or name that I read earlier, I recall where it is physically located on the page.
For example, when I wanted to find the magazine passage above referring to babies tracing out letters, I recalled that it was in the first paragraph on the right page near the end of the article.
The act of reading anchors text in the terrain of the page, much in the way that landmarks anchor us spatially as we travel about. As I’m driving towards the Yellowhead highway from the North Shore, landmarks along Halston Avenue help construct a mental image of where I am: the bridge, the twin Esso stations. Jabr elaborates:
“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.”
While it is true that screens allow for searching, it’s not as intuitive as when holding pages of printed text. In fact, such features are distracting and fatiguing in long articles.
It’s not a generational thing, a matter of readers growing up with nothing but digital screens. In a study of 32 pairs of parents of three to six-year-old children, kids remembered more details from the printed page than from e-books. The interactive animations, videos and games on the e-book diverted attention rather than enhancing comprehension.
For short articles such as this one, screens are just fine. If you’re reading it on line, there’s no need to print it to understand it.