A recent YouTube video from October 2011 captures the motion of a one-year-old-girl sweeping her fingers across an iPad’s touchscreen. In a later scene, she is pinching and swiping the pages of a paper magazine as if they were a screen too. When nothing happens, she squeezes her fingers against her leg, wondering whether her fingers were functioning.
The young girl’s father, Jean-Louis Constanza writes an article titled, “A Magazine is an iPad that does not work” describing his naturalistic observations. He writes that with all our current technology cording our minds, magazines have become useless for children who have been interacting with digital technologies from an early age.
This leads us to the question: how does technology change the way we read? Personally, I prefer reading on paper. When studying for exams, if our teacher uploads notes on her website, some of my classmates choose to read and study the notes form their iPads. I prefer to print the notes out and study with a paper-version of the notes.
Researchers in many fields including psychology, computer engineering and library and information science have been investigating whether our brains respond differently to words onscreen and words on paper and if so, how differently? Before 1992, studies consistently confirmed that people read slower and less accurately on screens than on paper. Results since the early 1990s, however, have had differing results.
Reading on paper has its advantages though. Our brain regions are specialized for object recognition which means that a network of neurons assists us in differentiating an apple from an orange, and yet we also have the ability to classify them both as fruits. We associate certain features such as roundness, smooth skin with apples; similar to how we recognize each letter by its arrangement of lines and curves. When looking at intricate characters such as Chinese hanzi or Japanese kanji, this activates motor regions in the brain involved with writing these characters. Even if our hands are not moving, the brain goes through the motions of writing when reading the characters on paper.
Aside from looking at individual letters as objects, our brain also perceives text on pieces of paper as a physical landscape. When we read, we construct a mental representation of the text. In published studies, people have reported than when trying to recall a particular piece of information, they remember where it is by locating where in the book it may have appeared. In addition, paper books have a set topography with clearly defined regions with left and right pages. The reader can see where the book commences and ends and how long the book is. All these characteristics allow the paper book to be easily navigable and help in forming a coherent mental map of the text.
On the contrary, screens such as e-readers, smartphones and tablets interfere with a person’s mental map of the text. Reading on an iPad allows the reader to scroll through a sea of words quickly. The reader is only able to see a single virtual page and does not know how the passage relates to the context of the entire text.