The Difference Between Reading On Paper And Reading On A Screen

An utterly fascinating article by Ferris Jabr on the Scientific American website, about the psychological differences between reading on paper and reading on a screen:

“Understanding how reading on paper is different from reading on screens requires some explanation of how the brain interprets written language. We often think of reading as a cerebral activity concerned with the abstract—with thoughts and ideas, tone and themes, metaphors and motifs.

As far as our brains are concerned, however, text is a tangible part of the physical world we inhabit. In fact, the brain essentially regards letters as physical objects because it does not really have another way of understanding them. The human brain perceives a text in its entirety as a kind of physical landscape. When we read, we construct a mental representation of the text in which meaning is anchored to structure.

The exact nature of such representations remains unclear, but they are likely similar to the mental maps we create of terrain—such as mountains and trails—and of man-made physical spaces, such as apartments and offices. 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.

We might recall that we passed the red farmhouse near the start of the trail before we started climbing uphill through the forest; in a similar way, we remember that we read about Mr. Darcy rebuffing Elizabeth Bennett on the bottom of the left-hand page in one of the earlier chapters.

In most cases, paper books have more obvious topography than onscreen text. An open paperback presents a reader with two clearly defined domains—the left and right pages—and a total of eight corners with which to orient oneself. A reader can focus on a single page of a paper book without losing sight of the whole text: one can see where the book begins and ends and where one page is in relation to those borders. One can even feel the thickness of the pages read in one hand and pages to be read in the other.

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. All these features not only make text in a paper book easily navigable, they also make it easier to form a coherent mental map of the text.

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. A reader of digital text might scroll through a seamless stream of words, tap forward one page at a time or use the search function to immediately locate a particular phrase—but it is difficult to see any one passage in the context of the entire text.” (Read more here.)

This exactly evokes my experience of reading paper book and e-books: with text on paper, I feel rooted, grounded, conscious of where I’ve been and where I’m going; with digital text, I feel lost, floating in a void.

Do these two kinds of reading feel this way to you, too?

13 Responses to “The Difference Between Reading On Paper And Reading On A Screen”

  1. Part of the reason Kindles are awesome. Unlike all the other readers I’ve tried, it closely mimics the paperback experience.

  2. Mini says:

    Have not been able to put my finger on quite why I preferred the tangible feeling of a book in my hand as opposed to using the e-reader…this article helps put those feelings into words..
    Was wondering why I didnt quite feel the same attachment with a digital reader as I did with a book…I think I finally can make sense of it…thank you!

  3. For me, a book is a full sensory experience. Something about the texture, weight, colors, and scent of a new book–seeking it on a bookshelf in the 3D world–make it more a part of my realities.

  4. Lyn Pollard says:

    Agree – reading a physical book is in many ways an emotional experience for me. Even the simple act of turning the page is part of the pleasure. Case in point, my dyslexic daughter who uses audio books and reading apps on our iPad to read age-appropriate literature prefers to also have the physical book in her hand so she can follow along with the text on paper as she listens, rather than read the text on the screen. She’s only 7, but already appreciates the difference between a “screen time” reading experience vs. a “real” reading experience. Her need for a technically-based (and since we use the iPad, screen-based) reading accommodation does not trump her innate desire to interact with a book.

  5. Jay says:

    I am comfortable with both, but I do like the Kindle experience since you can store so many books on it and it is easy for your eyes and convenient to take with you.

  6. Kathy Sierra says:

    For textbooks, in particular, wasn’t there a study (cannot find it at the moment) that showed students were under higher cognitive load using an ebook vs. paper? The conclusion was that it was much harder for students to flip back and forth between two different parts of the book… You could not easily put your thumb in one spot in the book and then flip back to that earlier part, while keeping your place physically in your current location. Plus, in a print book, we are oriented by things like… “I think that part was about a quarter of the way into the book…” or “it a few pages after that one picture…”

    The inability to easily flip and skim and jump back and forth with physical cues adds load. It is not that much of a problem for fiction, of course, but a strain for non-fiction. But while device makers and others are considering ways to make ebooks *feel* more like print (in ways that matter… IBooks shows “pages” as you turn the page, but those pages don’t reflect where you are in the book), we tell our authors that designing for this extra cog load with ebooks is the perfect opportunity to *make a better book.* For example, the thought experiment we give our authors: “Imagine that e-readers had a limitation where the moment the reader turned the digital page, all previous pages vanished FOREVER. How would you design your book to compensate for this?”. The answer is that improves not just ebooks but ALL books.

    We have come to accept that the ability to flip back and forth is important because in many non-fiction books we *had to*, but I see this as (for most books that aren’t pure reference) a flaw that was always there, and ebooks merely surfaced this flaw. If we consider the reasons people feel compelled to flip back and forth, it almost always reflects a problem in the book… like relying on the reader’s memory rather than carrying the context forward so the reader doesn’t HAVE to go back.

    There is still the issue of having a sense of where you are relative to where you have been and still have to go, but this was somewhat solved long ago for CD-ROM book navigation: have a navigation cue visible at all times. Most e-readers force you to explicitly call this “where am I in the book” onto the screen. A beautifully designed but subtle way-finding cue was on the screen at all times (enough to give you a consistent sense of place *without distracting from the book*) would go a long way.

    The old CD-ROM experience designers came up with so many fabulous and useful tools for this that have been largely forgotten in the new e-reader world. Some were quite creative and while not necessarily appropriate for books, we could learn many lessons about adding subtle or even subconscious cues. For example, Peter Gabriel’s CD-ROM used colors that subconsciously gave you a sense of where you were based on the navigation metaphor used in the design. It was not a left-to-right linear experience but a higher vs. deeper… you were meant to feel that you were going either deeper or higher. So the higher you went, the less saturated and cooler the colors were (more sky-like) while the deeper you went the richer and more saturated and warmer the colors were (more earth/dirt/clay like). And while probably not appropriate for *books*, they used subtle sound cues in the same way… The “higher” you were, the more the music emphasized higher frequencies. The deeper/lower you were, the more the music emphasized lower frequencies. Many people were never really aware of these cues, but still they felt more comfortable wherever they were, rather than feeling they were at some arbitrary spot with no relationship to the experience as a whole.

    Others used things like a phase-of-the-moon as a subtle cue up in a corner. When you wanted to go back to an earlier spot, your brain had this sort of “I think it was in the sliver moon part…” to help orient.

    Gee, I guess it is obvious that I love this topic.

  7. Hi Annie,

    Seems like we’ve been thinking about the same topics in how digital technology affects learning. I noticed a huge difference when I went back to school to do my Masters in 2009. Here’s what I wrote:
    The initial panic is wearing off from being back at school. I think I’ve come to terms with the the fact that I won’t see my family again until August.

    There is a lot of reading, which I initially tried to read off the computer screen. I have since printed off the articles, highlighted passages and written notes in the margin. I do have the technology to write sticky notes in the columns of PDFs and highlight text but I don’t seem to retain the information in the same way. There’s something about feeling the paper in hand and putting the geographical positioning of the passages into photographic memory that makes me connect better with the text than a screen scroll on a computer. This brings to question whether it’s a digital native versus digital immigrant issue. I don’t think that it is.

    My brain has seemed to re-wire itself over the past 10 years though I am considered a digital immigrant. I have much evidence of this transition, especially since going back to school. I had to re-learn how to write with a pen. Yes, I know how strange that sounds, but it took a long time to 1. choose between printing and cursive for speed and legibility, and 2. I couldn’t remember what my style of hand-writing looked like. The only time I had been using pen and paper was to write short shopping lists and to-do lists.

    So far, I have discussed only the use of tools, but even my processing of information is slowly changing back. I am a little better able to focus on individual tasks one at a time again. Since, re-gaining this skill, I found my level of comprehension has gone up. Before, I had gotten to the point of multi-tasking so much with technology that I couldn’t even remember what other tasks needed completion.

    Three weeks ago, I was trying to read an article for school on my computer when I came across a word I needed to look up. The word was “inchoate” (which is quite funny, because that’s how I’ve been through this whole transformation). I ended up searching the Internet for the meaning of the word and got lost in different information as links led to other links, leading me away and on to other topics.

    I made a point of disciplining myself and returned to read my article and my thoughts drifted to another class of mine. We had been discussing how Facebook looks at your profile and tailors the sidebar advertisements to your interests. That reminded me of a great book for teens I read called, “Feed” by M.T. Anderson. (spoiler alert) The book was about a futuristic society in which when children when born, typically, they were implanted with a chip. The chip monitored a person’s interests and formed demographic and psychographic profiles in order to offer geographical services and products right to the brain throughout life. “Feed” focused on two teenaged characters. One had a late implant and as a result, she could at times, willingly disconnect herself from the feed. Because she was still able to think for herself, she ended up playing with the system and giving out messages to the chip that she was interested in things outside her demographic and psychographic profile like expensive cars and things that didn’t make sense for her lifestlye. It was an informal experiment she was trying out (I won’t spoil the book entirely, but the act leads to her demise). The other teen had the implant from birth and couldn’t decide things for himself, couldn’t concentrate, and couldn’t form coherent full sentences. He let the feed guide his movements and activities. Ironically, I couldn’t remember the author’s name, but I was trying so hard to finish my reading that I resisted looking up the information. When I got to the end of the article, I couldn’t remember what it was I wanted to look for. I even posted on Facebook that I was having difficulty remembering something I knew I wanted to look up, complaining and blaming multi-tasking with technology. When I stepped away from the computer and went to have a shower, it was while rinsing my hair that I remembered what I wanted to look up.

    I am frightened for the digital natives. Their ability to retain information in their long term memory by connecting and making attachments is at risk largely due to the distractions precipitated by the act of technological multi-tasking and short spans of time with information. Stephen Kotler wrote an article in the May 2009 edition of Psychology Today in which he wrote,

    “The harm being done by Twitter is the harm it’s doing to the brain. The average user goes tweet-tweet all day long. This tunes the brain to reading and comprehending information 140 characters at a time.

    No one’s yet done the research, but I’m willing to bet my lunch-money, that if you take a Twitter-addicted teen and give them a reading comprehension test, their comprehension levels will plunge once they pass the 140 word mark.”

    Kevin Parrish wrote an article in Tom’s Guide, published in September of 2009 about research done by Dr. Alloway, that suggests that Kotler is right.

    As reported by the Telegraph, Dr. Tracy Alloway, working out of the University of Stirling in Scotland, says that working memory is the ability to remember information, and actually put that information to use. After extensive research in working memory, she believes that success and happiness stem from this ability rather than having high IQs. She also believes that certain video games can train working memory, especially those that involve planning and strategy.

    Although Facebook offers “thinking” games such as Sudoku, managing friends and dates on the social website exercises the working memory. Twitter, YouTube and texting, on the other hand, isn’t exactly healthy. “On Twitter you receive an endless stream of information, but it’s also very succinct,” said Dr Alloway. ”You don’t have to process that information. Your attention span is being reduced and you’re not engaging your brain and improving nerve connections.”

    Alloway’s work was done with 11-14 year old test subjects. Perhaps, it would also be beneficial to study those of us that teeter on the wall between the digital natives and digital immigrants. It might also be worth studying younger teachers for the added benefit of revealing the impact on the development of a new “educational model”.
    http://janemitchinson.ca/2009/09/teetering-between-digital-immigrant-and-digital-native/

  8. There’s a wonderful old Woody Allen story called “The Kugelmass Epidsode” in which an inventor creates a machine that can literally transport a person into any book imaginable. The main character initially asks to be sent into Madame Bovary and has a memorable experience. However, the story ends with him accidentally being transported into a Remedial Spanish textbook, where he is relentlessly pursued by a hairy-legged irregular verb over an endlessly rocky terrain.

    The latter is how I feel about reading books electronically. It’s that same groundless, amorhous, lost feeling that you describe. I do find it useful to Google facts or read articles through links on Facebook or Twitter, but reading a comprehensive work seems unappealing.

    I do understand the appeal of a Kindle or a Nook. I never seem to have enough bookshelves in my house–even though I give away many books. I often read while lying in bed, and it’s certainly cumbersome to hold up a chunky tome while getting sleepy. Some have also told me how handy it is to be able to do a quick search when a character reemerges after a long absence in a novel: In a couple of seconds, you can say, “Oh, right, this is the main character’s annoying friend!” rather than havnig to hunt backwards in a physical book to find a reference.

    I also believe that it may be a matter of individual differences, and it may be possible for the brain to adjust to reading/absorbing information this way over time. In the last two years, I’ve started doing audiobooks on a regular basis in the car. At first, I found this very difficult: My brain would wander, and often I would have to rewind to catch up. That’s still somewhat true, but I’ve gotten better at comprehending what I hear… and knowing when to not try because the circumstances have made it too hard to focus.

    So I’m open to e-books. My wife loves reading the New Yorker on her Kindle Fire–the layout definitely can make a difference–and I love the fact that we no longer have piles of magazines cluttering the house with all my books. But I’m still a technology laggard on this front, and part of it may be just my romanticized, long internalized reaction to holding a physical book as much as my wariness about the e-book experience.

  9. Maggie Lehrian says:

    Thank you for this insightful article. I also feel as though I don’t retain information the same when reading it electronically. This information has provided some insight into why that might be. Similarly, I feel I retain information better when writing as apposed to typing. I would love to hear any information regarding how the brain processes those two actions differently. I was once criticized by my boss when I stated that I prefer physically writing notes to typing, due to retention….

  10. Vasileios says:

    The light of the screen and the involvement of senses other than vision makes reading online more distracting than reading a printed text. Faced with having to read hundreds of academic papers for my research, the easiest method I found was to use the text-to-speech feature of an e-reader, so that I can take notes as I go and the rest of my brain is listening instead of reading. Pausing occasionally to take a more detailed look at the text was also a major help.

  11. Bill Kuhl says:

    I have never had to wait for a book to bootup or have to worry about the battery level. For some applications digital media is nice when you need to search or copy and paste.

    I find there is a certain charm in a physical entity be it a book with graphics on the cover or music in the form of a record or a CD. In my wildest dreams I would have never thought itunes would have been such a hit.

    Also I am pleasantly surprised how many people that read this blog view my website.

  12. adee says:

    Thought-provoking article for sure. I guess I have a 50/50 reaction for both the mediums. First, the words themselves matter more than where they’re printed or published. Second, my reading behavior is a balance of both. Most of my lengthy reading, both fiction and non-fiction, I do in printed book form. But still, most of my reading I do electronically: your blog and e-mails, for example. And things like text and images look gorgeous on a tablet! So both the mediums have their pros and cons. And as of now, i can’t imagine a world without either!

  13. Good way of describing, and nice article to get information on the topic of my presentation topic, which
    i am going to present in college.

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