Paper or Digital? Our Brains in the Digital Age

I have an iPad and a few books loaded onto it, but honestly, I don’t enjoy digital reading. I’ve tried. But the experience leaves me cold. Maybe it stems from childhood. My dad, who would have turned one hundred years old this year, never had the chance to finish his formal education. He was thrust into the role of head of family at an early age, but he loved books. He educated himself, became a lover of poetry, and made sure his children grew up surrounded by books and magazines. But now it seems there is more than childhood experience driving my preference for the printed word over the digital screen.

image courtesy of

image courtesy of

Last year the Scientific American published a long article called The Reading Brain in the Digital Age–The Science of Paper vs Screens.The author summarizes a number of studies about how people learn and remember and it turns out we process text differently when it’s on paper than when it’s on a screen.

According to the findings presented in the article, reading from a screen is more tiring, which leads to lowered comprehension. Reading from a screen deprives the reader of the tactile experiences of interacting with a physical book. Readers of physical books are better able to orient themselves to the text, to skip back and forth, to mark certainĀ  pages or passages. Of course digital readers provide a way to do this, too, but the person still is able to see only a portion of the “book” at a time and is not able to see a particular passage or chapter in full context, to get a visual clue as to how many pages are left.

The studies differentiated between “remembering” and “knowing.” Digital pages are fine for “remembering”–in the studies there were no significant differences in readers’ abilities to remember what they read. But when it came to the deeper concept of “knowing” , readers of physical books demonstrated a greater command of the material.

Why does this matter? In reading fiction for pleasure it probably doesn’t. But think about the current trend in some schools of substituting iPads for physical textbooks. Do you want your children to simply “remember” what they read, or do you want them to internalize their reading, to interact deeply with the ideas and images presented in physical books? To really “know” something rather than to simply remember reading it on a screen?

Digital reading is not going away and there are times when digital readers might be an advantage to students. For example, instead of the cardboard “flash cards” that were used inĀ  my school to teach vocabulary words and math facts, students can practice them endlessly on a digital screen.

But in each succeeding generation we will move farther and farther away from a culture of physical books and that will be a great loss to us all.

Here’s a link to the article:

What about you? Do you prefer physical books, or digital readers? Why?