Ebooks v Paper

Which do our brains prefer? Research is forcing us to rethink how we respond to the written word

Overall, there doesn’t seem to be any convincing evidence that reading on screen or paper is better per se. “If the cognitive component is strong,” suggests Benedetto, “the cultural one is even stronger.” For Margolin, “the preference for reading on paper or a screen seems to be just that: a preference.” And, increasingly, younger people are opting for digital. The National Literary Trust survey found 52 per cent of 8- to 16-year-olds preferred reading on screen, with just 32 per cent preferring print.


Choosing books to take on holiday has got more difficult in recent years. Now it is a question not just of what to read but how – on paper, tablet, e-reader, or perhaps even a phone – and people have strong opinions on which is best. But is there any more to the decision than cost and convenience? On this question, the answer suggested by numerous studies into the neuroscience and psychology of reading in different formats is an emphatic yes.

There is no shortage of people warning of the risks attendant on the rise of “screen culture”, as the neuroscientist Susan Greenfield calls it. Greenfield has repeatedly expressed concern that, as technology takes us into unknown territory, “the brain may be adapting in unprecedented ways”. Though she tends to stress that these changes might be good or bad, that hasn’t stopped her more negative speculations being picked up in the media and amplified in far more strident terms.

On the other side of the two cultures divide, the novelist and critic Will Self recently argued that the connectivity of the digital world was fatal for the serious novel, which requires all the reader’s attention. Looking ahead 20 years, he posed a question: “If you accept that by then the vast majority of text will be read in digital form on devices linked to the web, do you also believe that those readers will voluntarily choose to disable that connectivity? If your answer to this is no, then the death of the novel is sealed out of your own mouth.”

E-reading is certainly on the rise. The Pew Research Center reports that, as recently as 2010, hardly anyone in the US had an e-reader or tablet. Now half do. The proportion of the population who have read an ebook in the past year rose from 17 per cent in 2011 to 28 per cent just three years later. In the UK, figures from Nielsen, which monitors book sales, showed that one in four consumer titles bought in 2013 was an ebook, up from one in five a year earlier.

Is this cause for concern? There is some evidence that reading on screen can result in less comprehension and even affect sleep patterns. But the research here is complex and inconclusive and, in any case, it is actually doing something far more interesting than telling us which medium is superior. It’s making us think more about what it means to read.

As researchers examine the differences reading in different media make, they are also having to distinguish carefully between the different things that we do when we read. Take, for instance, the difference between “deep reading”, when you really get immersed in a text, and “active learning”, when you make notes in margins or put down the book to cross-reference with something else.

When Anne Campbell of the Open University in Scotland looked at how students used Kindle readers and paper books, she found that the electronic devices promoted more deep reading and less active learning. This appeared to be a direct result of design. “They’re less distracted using this very basic Kindle,” she told me. “They’re almost being forced to focus on it because of the very lack of ability to do things like flick forward and flick back.” Another related, widely replicated finding, is that people read more slowly on screens than from paper.

Sara Margolin of the State University of New York has also conducted research in this area. She says that “slowing down may actually allow us to spend more time consolidating what we have read into a more cohesive mental representation of the text”; furthermore, “not skipping around during reading” could be “a good thing in that it forces the reader to read the text in order, and preserves the organisation the author intended”. However, it also discourages rereading, which is known to help with “metacomprehension” – readers’ ability to recognise whether or not they have understood what they just read.

Read More