Our Brains Absorb Print And E-Books Differently

By Joelle Renstrom | 7 years ago

booksI’ll admit to having become a fairly recent Kindle convert, with one major caveat: I only use the Kindle when I’m traveling. I’ve been known to stuff my rucksack with at least a half-dozen books, and they do add an unwieldy heft. So when my mom gave me a Kindle a few years back, I resisted until July, when I downloaded a dozen books and set off for my travels with only a guidebook in the form of paperback reading. Nowadays, half of my students use Kindles or e-readers instead of actual paper books, which I tell them isn’t a great idea — annotations work differently (if at all with an e-reader), and when we’re talking about what happens on page 68 in class, they’ll have no idea where that is in their version. They don’t buy my argument that I think we read better and deeper from paper books. But maybe now they’ll consider it, given that a recent study found that those who read on a Kindle were far worse at remembering the timeline of events in the plot of a story.

A study conducted at Stavanger University in Norway focused on how the brain processes information from the page versus information from the screen. Researchers gave 50 participants a 28-page story by Elizabeth George. Half of them read it in paperback form, and the other half read it on a Kindle. The subjects then took tests on the story designed to test their emotional responses and memory with regards to plot, character, setting, and other objects present in the narrative.

The results were pretty interesting. Unlike some previous studies that demonstrated a diminished emotional response from subjects reading on an iPad, this study found that the Kindle readers reported more empathy and immersion. I have to wonder whether that’s because of the Kindle’s book-like features, and how it attempts to simulate the turning of a page, as well as the size of a book. For me, an iPad has more visual and social media connotations — basically, it seems like more of a distraction than a Kindle. But that might be because of the way I use both devices.

Where the paperback readers really separated themselves from the Kindle readers is when they were asked to recall the order of events in the story. The Kindle readers did “significantly worse” when it came to correctly remembering the plot. Thus, the researchers concluded 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”. It’s interesting, because you wouldn’t necessarily associate touch or tactile sensation with memory — I don’t think most of us are all that conscious of touching a book or the way the pages feel. But the researchers suggest that even if we’re not conscious of those aspects of reading, our brains register them somewhere, such as the growing number of pages on the left and the diminishing number of pages left on the right. It’s almost like a reader is “unfolding” a book, a physical action associated with the unfolding of events in the narrative.

Similarly, in another Norwegian study, 72 tenth graders took similar comprehension tests after reading a print text or a PDF version, and the print readers performed better. The results have led to more research about the effects of turning text on the page to text on the screen. The digitization of text, while certainly convenient, may not behoove us when it comes to understanding. Of course, it depends what that text is — a Danielle Steele book would probably not lose much on the screen. It also depends on how used to e-readers the subjects are, which will likely become more and more of a factor. But don’t expect this debate to end anytime soon.