In the not too distant past we used to read, properly. Be it a book, magazine or a letter, we would start at the front and work through. Even newspapers were consumed in a logical format. Since the arrival of multiple screens, smart devices and the Internet, something has changed. Now we either choose to read or skim depending on the media in front of us.
Web users are hopping all over the place like frogs on a hot plate, with link to adverts, boxouts, pop-ups and other distractions breaking any attempt to follow the flow of any text.
Reading Between the Science
Science believes that the rise of electronic reading means we now have bi-literate brains that diverge when it comes from reading from a paper-based source, or off a screen. Whenever we pick up a tablet or e-reader, the mind prepares to be diverted and jump from place to place. Pick up a humble paperback however and the brain adopts a calmer stance, as it knows you won’t be so distracted. The two are very much different activities, like jogging compared to going for a gentle stroll.
This technology-based, non-linear reading also impacts our ability to retain information. All the hopping around apparently sees the mind less able to store facts. Or, perhaps it stores them more randomly, making mental maps and linking them to other pieces of relevant information harder. Another issue of this bi-literacy is that information overload makes it harder for our brains to store key information, perhaps focusing on how shocking that Kim Kardashian photo really was.
The Good and the Bad of Reading
Naturally, there are those who believe that this change is a “bad thing.” Just as there were those who decried the radio, TV, video games and train travel, along with every other advance. In the long run, humans adapt to the situation around them. The trick is to balance between reading from books, so that you mind retains the ability to store data the old-fashioned way.
Also, books are better when the power fails, your device battery runs out, the Internet goes down, you’re on a beach and many other reasons. So, there’s no need to worry about the end of the paperback just yet. As with the return of vinyl records, books have a long and great future ahead of them.
Oftentimes, with a book in hand, one has a better sense of imagination. Humans have centuries of experience filling in the blanks that surround each written world.
This is harder to achieve with digital screens, usually because there is often an image or five that provides that information, removing the sense of wonder. When holding a Kindle it’s easier to wonder what else is on the store, what the battery life is and other trivialities, that can distract from the story or article.
Dreaming of Reading
Another issue with electronic reading, recently “solved”, is that it is harder for some people to go to sleep due to the bright screen. Apple claims to have made this less of a problem on iOS devices by reducing the amount of blue light emitted that keeps some folk awake. However, given that the brain sorts its recently stored information while we sleep, this could impact how and what we remember, so chalk up another advantage for the plain old book.
Do you find you “read” differently depending on the source material? Do you find it harder to retain information gleaned through a screen, Retina-display or otherwise.
Certainly, people will continue to evolve their reading habits as technology produces increasingly fractured texts to peruse. If it does affect you, there’s always Reading Mode on modern devices to strip out some of the rubbish. But how long until someone tries to mandate a plain view for all web pages and other digital content?