Do screens make us stupider? Time for a rethink of reading
At the university where I teach, fewer and fewer new books are available from the library in their physical, printed form. And yet, the company that just published my textbook tells me that about 90 percent of students who buy my book choose to lug around the four-pound paper version rather than purchase the weightless e-book.
The information is exactly the same, so why would students opt for the pricier and more cumbersome version? Is the library missing something important about the nature of printed versus electronic books?
Some studies do show that information becomes more securely fixed in people’s minds when they read it from paper than when they read it from the screen. Findings like these may resonate with our subjective experience of reading, and yet still seem puzzling at an intellectual level. This is because we’re used to thinking about reading—or information processing more generally—as the metaphorical equivalent of consuming food. We talk about devouring novels, digesting a report, and absorbing information. If we’re ingesting the same material, whether it’s presented in print or electronically, how can the results be so different?
Within the prevailing food metaphor, the only sensible way to think about these different outcomes is that reading from paper leads to more efficient or complete digestion. An intuitive explanation may be that visual fatigue or the effort of navigating text onscreen interferes with the processing of information. Or perhaps we’ve picked up shallow mental habits while onscreen that prevent us from taking the time to properly chew on the information as we take it in. In both cases, the implication is that valuable informational nutrients that are “there” in the text end up being mentally excreted rather than absorbed.
But, in reality, the whole reading-as-digestion metaphor is deeply flawed. Cognitive research shows that while reading, it’s possible, among other things, to generate strong visual images based on the text, to marshal arguments against the author’s main point, to speculate about the motivations of characters, to connect the text to personal experiences, to form an opinion, or to notice the sensory and aesthetic qualities of the text, to name just a few. Not all of these take place every time you read, so there is not just one activity called “reading,” done either poorly or well.
There are probably all sorts of subtle cues around us, influencing our cognitive goals moment by moment. A study showed that when people read a product review in a hard-to-read font, they more carefully evaluated the merits of the arguments than when the same information was presented in easy-to-read font—suggesting that when information merely feels hard to process, we automatically bring out the heavy cognitive machinery. The emerging research on cognitive goals and their triggers offers an intriguing way to think about why reading the same text in different formats or even styles of presentation might engage the mind in such different ways. A hard-copy textbook may serve as a powerful cue that sets off cognitive activities that are very distinct from those that are involved in reading your Twitter feed or thumbing through a paperback romance novel.
The research should also motivate publishers— especially of online text—to think deeply about how elements of presentation and design can serve as signals to nudge the reader into the mental activities that do justice to the text. For example, an online literary magazine may leave readers with unsatisfying experiences simply because it’s too hard to arouse the contemplative and sensory goals that lead to properly savoring its content. The magazine needs to signal that a different kind of reading is called for, perhaps by borrowing some of the elements that poets have long used to cue readers to pay close attention to the language of a poem: stripping away graphic distractions, formatting text sparsely and unconventionally, and surrounding it with generous swaths of empty space.
Understanding how reading works means abandoning the idea that the presentation of a text is as inconsequential as whether a plate of food is served with a sprig of decorative parsley. In fact, the packaging of text likely contains rich implicit instructions for what we do with it.
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