The readers who immerse themselves in the maze of paper and ink, savouring every word, seem to be on the verge of extinction.
Even those with the patience to wade through a dozen-paragraph article are in the minority, and one explanation is that reading habits are changing as a result of online browsing. We don’t yet know whether the printed word will disappear in the future, like a lost Atlantis swallowed up by the waves of online information, but studies are revealing both the benefits of reading on the brain and the different ways in which the brain processes information on paper and on screen.
Editor Carole DeSanti has written an article on the thorny issue of literary awards—coveted and controversial, with the power to propel authors into the limelight or condemn them to oblivion. As a child and young adult, Carole avoided award-winning books with their unmistakable seals of nobility. With a bloodhound’s instinct, she hunted down lesser-known titles, hoping to find the glorious pages she had dreamed of, rather than the famous ones that seemed to her to be nothing more than books that adults wanted her to read.
Carole’s dilemmas and choices seem quaint in an age when the written word has become a kind of modern Cinderella. However, the title of her article can become a starting point for analysing today’s reading practices and readers: Can literature save us? And why do we need saving?
Celebrating reading for all its gifts
Reading literature changes the architecture of our brains, according to a study by Emory University in Atlanta. After scanning the brains of study participants over 19 consecutive days, nine of which were spent reading 1/9 of a book before each scan, the results showed that brain connectivity increased both in the left temporal cortex, associated with language receptivity, and in the somatosensory cortex, the region responsible for the sense of touch and body ownership.
The changes persisted even at rest, a phenomenon that Professor Gregory Berns, coordinator of the study, calls “shadow activity, almost like a muscle memory.” This activation in the areas responsible for body movement and sensory perception is evidence that the reader takes on the role of the character in the fiction, enhancing what psychologists call “theory of mind”—the ability to understand the intentions, desires, and emotions of others, which is essential for social interaction.
Reading stories “reconfigures brain networks for at least a few days. It shows how stories can stay with us. This may have profound implications for children and the role of reading in shaping their brains,” Berns concludes.
Reading also plays a key role in slowing down cognitive decline. “Pastimes like reading, writing, and many others make the brain more efficient by changing its structure to continue functioning properly in spite of age-related neuropathologies,” says neuropsychology professor Robert Wilson.
A 2009 study of 72 children aged 8 to 10 by researchers Timothy Keller and Marcel Just of Carnegie Mellon University found that reading builds white matter in the brain, which is responsible for transporting information between grey matter regions. The study concluded that not only does reading create more white matter, but it is also involved in processing information more efficiently.
Reading for pleasure provides children with many other benefits, including improved writing and reading skills, increased comprehension of text, vocabulary development, enrichment of general culture, participation in community life, deeper understanding of human nature, and improved quality of decision-making, according to British researchers Christina Clark and Kate Rumbold.
Precisely because reading enriches us in so many ways (and the studies showing its benefits to our development are far too numerous to mention here), some experts are concerned about how the internet is changing our reading habits and thought processes.
How reading has changed in the digital age
Reading is a cultural invention that uses the structures of the brain to create a new skill, says developmental psychologist Maryanne Wolf, director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University in Boston. Drawing on information from fields ranging from linguistics to cognitive neuroscience, Wolf argues for the “complex beauty of the reading process” in her book Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain.
Wolf also writes about the surprising plasticity of the brain. In the case of literacy, for example, the brain creates new connections between old neural networks, forming a circuit that is different for each new language learned, a circuit that becomes self-contained. For example, a patient treated for alexia after a stroke could no longer read in English, but could still read in Chinese.
Reading is more than absorbing information or searching for ready-made answers, Wolf writes; it is thinking in action. Less so in the online environment, where the way we read is fundamentally altered—information is overloaded, condensed to save us the effort of “inferential, analytical and critical” reading.
However, the plasticity of our neural circuits has its weaknesses, Wolf points out. With digital reading, slow information processing, which is responsible for very important analytical and empathic processes, can no longer take place.
In fact, in the online environment, information is just a click away, it’s more information than we’re capable of processing, and the brain behaves differently than it does with traditional reading: it’s either stuck or overexcited, waiting for another wave of information to overwhelm it, Wolf writes in her book Reader, Come Home.
Wolf knows the process from experience—she realised she had a concentration problem when she re-read Herman Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game. Although she’s a voracious reader, she was alarmed to find that she found the book exhausting and boring. And if a professional reader loses concentration and analytical skills after years of getting used to reading from a screen, Wolf has no doubt that the transformation affects even more those who are unfamiliar with reading long, complex texts.
It’s an experience echoed by the American writer Nicholas Carr, who compares the pleasure of reading in the past with the lack of concentration that comes with becoming accustomed to reading digitally. “Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.”
Carr admits that the internet has been a godsend for his writing, providing him with information in minutes that would have taken him days to find in libraries. However, this gift comes at a price, a little higher than the label suggests. A medium is not just a passive channel through which information flows, says the writer, quoting media theorist Marshall McLuhan. The medium provides content for thought, but also actively intervenes to shape it. “Whether I’m online or not, my mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a jet ski.”
The inability to maintain focus while reading is a problem faced by other people familiar to the writer. Carr cites the example of online media blogger Scott Karp, who confesses that he’s given up books altogether—perhaps it’s not just the way he reads that has changed, but also the way he thinks, Karp suggests.
Doctor and university professor Bruce Fiedman says he can no longer read Tolstoy’s War and Peace, for example. Fiedman believes that he no longer has the ability to do that. “Even a blog post of more than three or four paragraphs is too much to absorb. I skim it.”
Ink or pixels—how we process information depending on the medium
How our brains react when confronted with the same text, either on paper or on a screen, has been the subject of much research over the past few decades, but the jury is still out.
Studies in the 1980s showed that reading text on a screen was slower, less accurate and less comprehensible. It was thought that the design of the user interface might explain the difference, but several studies in the 1990s found relatively small differences between indicators for regular and screen reading. Some subsequent studies after 2000 confirmed the early findings, either reporting slower reading speed in the digital environment (Mayes, 2001) or better comprehension of text on paper (Wästlund, 2005), while others found the screen to be superior. The mixed results have been analysed by researchers Jan Noyesa and Kate Garland in a report which concludes that the decision to use screen or book should be made by weighing the advantages and disadvantages of each against the requirements of the task at hand and the expected performance.
In addition, laboratory experiments and reports from text consumers show that the screen does not replicate the tactile experience of reading a book (nor does it reconstruct the intimacy with the text) and can even be an obstacle to satisfactory reading of longer texts. The screen also depletes our mental resources more easily, according to a study by Karlstad University.
“There is physicality in reading,” says developmental psychologist Maryanne Wolf, who advocates using technology wisely while preserving what’s valuable about old ways of learning. To understand the difference between the two types of reading, Wolf’s book Proust and the Squid explains how the brain takes in written language. Because we weren’t born with neural circuits designed for reading, the brain created one, weaving together regions that specialise in skills such as language or motor coordination. In the same way that the brain uses specialised networks of neurons to tell the difference between two fruits, it recognises each letter by its unique silhouette, bringing together lines, curves, and empty spaces. Researchers have found that while reading, the brain gently activates the regions responsible for motor coordination, as if reproducing the movements of writing the letters. Therefore, although we tend to think of reading as an activity involving abstract concepts, the brain perceives letters as physical objects and can only understand them in this way.
What is more, our brains make entire maps of the information we read—in an exam, we remember where a particular theory was on the page as we learned it, or in what colour it was underlined. We can do this because the topography of the book makes it easier to read and remember. By contrast, the text on the screen is a veritable avalanche of words, and it’s hard to remember how a particular passage fits into the context.
“The implicit feel of where you are in a physical book turns out to be more important than we realised,” says Abigail Sellen, a researcher at Microsoft Research Cambridge, pointing out that ebook publishers haven’t taken this need to constantly visualise where you are in a book into account.
Readers say they need to have control over a text, and paper gives them that experience by allowing them to underline passages or make annotations around the text. And it is not just older readers who have a nostalgia for printed books and show this preference. Millennials also prefer print, at least when it comes to a book, according to a survey by Salve Regina University in Rhode Island. Similarly, a 2011 study found that most students at National Taiwan University preferred to print out a text after skimming a few paragraphs online, in order to delve deeper.
The preference for paper may be related to how we recall information from different media. Psychologists distinguish between knowing something/feeling that a piece of information is true, but not being able to identify a context in which it was learned, and recalling a piece of information with all the details of its acquisition. Experiments have shown that when a text is learned from the screen, it is more likely to be recalled in the first manner than in the second.
At the first ebook conference organised by the National Institute of Standards and Technology in the US in 1999, Dick Brass, former vice-president of Microsoft, stressed that the ebook revolution would change the world in the same way as the discovery of the printing press. He predicted that by 2018 almost all books would be sold in digital format.
Scottish writer Ewan Morrison declared in 2011 that the end of the physical book would come in about 25 years. The printed book still graces the eyes and fingers of readers, despite the periodic death sentences of technology enthusiasts.
Perhaps in the future, ebooks will come closer to the printed book, including reproducing the tactile feel we have become accustomed to, or perhaps readers’ attitudes to the digital medium will change radically. Or perhaps, as Wolf suggests, we will split reading into two distinct activities—one in which we immerse ourselves in the book and one in which we use the screen—in order to preserve the brain benefits of classic reading.
In any case, the ink addiction is unlikely to disappear among avid page-turners, those who enjoy the hardcover or simply the paperback cover with its promise of undistilled pleasure; the rustling paper with the raw, springy smell of ink; the rounded letters with barely perceptible music in every stroke and line; the format—large enough to carry the book around as a briefcase or small enough to fit in your treasure trove pocket.