Science Behind Reading Behaviour: Paper Vs. Plasma

I’m really struggling with reading on digital platforms simply because I’ve gotten used to reading text on paper. When I got reading lists from college, the first thought that popped into my mind was PRINT THEM ALL! Personally, reading journals on a laptop is not an enjoyable process for me. I find it difficult to immerse myself in reading when I am looking at a screen. I quite like the texture of real books, the smells of ink and papers. I know a lot of people have similar feelings.

Beyond personal preference, why do we feel and behave so differently when holding a book and reading on digital devices?

Mary and Geoff, researchers at Dartmouth University, found that human brains process information differently when reading on digital devices and physical papers. They also found that digital reading makes readers excessively focus on details, making it hard to interpret information abstractly. This could explain why we always read again and again on pdf documents and tried so hard to get the general point.

Researchers conducted several tests to explore the differences between digital reading and traditional reading. They conducted an experiment with over 600 people aged 20 to 24 years, divided them into two groups, then asked half of them to read an article on digital devices and the other half to read the same size and format article on the print version. All the respondents were required to answer abstract and concrete questions after reading. The results showed digital readers hold higher accuracy (73% on average) on concrete questions compared to non-digital group (58% on average), while non-digital readers performed better than digital readers of answering abstract questions (66% and 48%, respectively). Digital readers interpret more precisely on details and concrete information, while traditional readers seemingly find it easier to grasp abstract information and have a more comprehensive understanding of what was read.

In addition, reading builds the cognitive relationship between contents and our brain, while the relationship is different when reading on digital platforms and on paper. Reading on digital devices is more laser-focused; the brain process is related to concrete memories, which helps us build crystallised intelligence and interpret facts and figures accurately. Traditional reading facilitates abstract thinking and builds fluid intelligence. This reminded me the reading behaviour of my niece, a 7-year-old girl. She cannot really focus on content when reading on an iPad. In addition, details easily distract her, like colours of the illustration and notifications from other apps. She can also barely interpret what she reads. When it comes to reading books, she can easily immerse herself and start her imagination, because she can tell you what she read and surprisingly share some dramatic ideas after reading.

At times, reading on screen really interferes with in-depth learning, especially on laptops and smart devices. We are normally easily distracted during reading. One obvious example is checking social media when we read academic journals on digital platforms. Kindle might be better to focus on reading but we may still find it difficult to make notes and interpret information, as it’s not a real book.

Neuroscientists also agree that the brain processes differently when reading on screen and physical papers, as people use a different part of the brain in different reading behaviour. Reading on physical materials is more ‘real’ to the brain. A Bangor University study showed that reading on paper makes readers involve more emotional processing because the way they read connects to the memory networks of the brain, which means readers can constantly immerse themselves in reading, making it easier to understand the general content. This mechanism helps readers both interpret more abstractly and connect internal feelings with content. Researchers at the University of Michigan found that overconsuming on digital platforms leads to physical and mental fatigue and reduces the power of the brain in processing information and memories. Furthermore, overconsuming and over-relying on digital reading may change the way we process information, as the brain trained to be more focus concrete information. Of course, it doesn’t mean digital reading is harmful or meaningless. Reading on digital devices might be easier for us to process figures, details and deal with more technology-based issues.

Strategically choosing the way you read might be helpful for achieving certain goals of reading — go with papers if you need to understand content in depth and go for digital platforms for concrete interpretation. However, it’s not a serious decision in our life, just go with personal reading preference and enjoy reading.

Nic S. Fu