What’s the Story with E-Reading?

Reading is reading, right?  We can be okay with our children staring at a tablet screen consuming age-appropriate texts, because “at least they’re reading!”  We can nod approvingly to ourselves when we students borrow a textbook and read it on our e-reader because we saved some money and “it’s the same text!”  We can sit in front of a screen, be it a desktop, laptop, tablet, e-reader, or cell phone and tell ourselves we are learning and growing with the digital age, even if our eyes are screaming at us, our vision is blurred, and we can’t really retain what we’ve just read.  It’s all part of progress, we tell ourselves, we’ll learn to do it better with more practice.  That’s why we’re always on our phones, isn’t it?    

Let’s talk about our brains when it comes to reading. How do we process digital reading?  When we use an e-reader, what are the effects this method of reading has on our ability to process and retain, i.e. learn the information we are consuming?

For the purposes of this work, clarification of an “e-book” is an electronic book, a book-length publication in digital format, consisting of text, images, or both, readable on computers or other electronic devices.   An “e-reader” is a device that allows access of e-books, it could be a tablet such as an iPad, or a dedicated e-reader device such as a Kindle.

As e-books have risen in popularity and use over the last decade, a question has emerged, as it does with each new piece of technology: is it safe, and is it beneficial?   With children growing up with a digital screen in each hand, it is an important and worthy question that requires an answer.

From birth, human brains are “plastic” or moldable.

“What molds our brain? Experience.  Even into old age, our experiences actually change the physical structure of our brain.  When we undergo an experience, our brain cells–called neurons–become active, or “fire.”  The brain has one hundred billion neurons, each with an average of ten thousand connections to other neurons.  The ways in which particular circuits in the brain are activated determines the nature of our mental activity, ranging from perceiving sights or sounds to more abstract thought and reasoning. When neurons fire together, they grow new connections between them. Over time, the connections that result from firing lead to “rewiring” in the brain. This is incredibly exciting news…we can actually rewire [our brain] so that we can be healthier and happier.”

Part of these experiences include emergent literacy in which children are taught to read and write.  Ideally, after basic reading mastery, a child will be able to progress to a point where they practice what educators describe as “deep reading.” Deep reading is the concentrated, focused reading we do when we want to immerse ourselves in a novel or read a legal document.  It is related to linear reading, which is what you are doing now.  As author, I have predetermined what I will say in this work.  I have written it in a left-to-right manner, and as you read, you progress line by line and page by page.  You, as reader, cannot enter the text on any page you wish in hopes of gaining understanding of the whole text.  By contrast, in non-linear reading, which is what readers do with electronic sources such as the Internet (think about how your eyes move when you check your Twitter feed), there is no predetermined sequence, the reader can move among various media inserts such as video, pictures, or links.  Because the content is so varied and can be accessed at any point, it is impossible to create as much meaning as a logical progression through words on a page.

Our brains are trained from early on to read in a linear fashion because that is how we can focus and get into the ‘deep reading’ mindset where we create those new neural connections, and acquire deep reading processes.   For the Neiman Report, director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University Maryanne Wolf writes,

“When reading even a single word, the first milliseconds of the reading circuit are largely devoted to decoding the word’s visual information and connecting it to all that we know about the world from its sounds to meanings to syntactic functions….Within the next precious milliseconds we enter a cognitive space where we can connect the decoded information to all that we know and feel. In this latter part of the process of reading, we are given the ability to think new thoughts of our own: the generative core of the reading process.”

The act of going beyond the text before our eyes to analyze and generate new thoughts is the product of years of formation, learning to read with expanding comprehension.  As adult readers we have developed a reading circuit for which there is no pre-programming or genetic guarantee of existence.  Dr. Wolf describes it, “The reading circuit’s very plasticity is also its Achilles’ heel.  It can be fully fashioned over time and fully implemented when we read, or it can be short-circuited…in the execution of only part of its potentially available cognitive resources.”

In short, if you don’t use it, you lose it.

We know a great deal about how the brain learns to read and processes the information it takes in, however, we still know very little about the digital reading brain. Will an immersion in digitally dominated forms of reading change our capacity to think deeply, reflectively, and in an intellectually autonomous manner when we read?

Studies within the last ten years have demonstrated that students reading print performed better than their peers reading the same text on a screen.  Why is this?  Our brains automatically switch into non-linear function when we look at a screen, eyes darting around to take in all the stimulation, the brain being naturally attracted to novelty. Confronted with this glut of information that does not reach our deeper, critical-thinking level of reading may mean that readers, both experienced and inexperienced, will have neither the time nor motivation to think through the possible layers of meaning in what they read.  This mindset towards reading seeks to reduce information to ‘easiest to digest,’ or a lowest common denominator.  So while the Internet may aid in a skill such as speed reading or assumed efficiency, neither of those are desirable for deep thought.

Ziming Liu remarked that neuroscience refers to this effect as a “‘bi-literate’ brain.’… And the problem is that many of us have adapted to reading online just too well. Screen-based reading behavior is characterized by more time spent on browsing and scanning…one-time reading, non-linear reading…. Decreased sustained attention is also noted.”

This has a huge potential to affect students in the secondary and higher levels of education.  These are the students who are reading for information and to prepare themselves for interaction with the real world in ‘live’ situations.  If they do not have the capability to read deeply, retain that information, and reflect upon it, we are looking at a situation that technology visionary Edward Tenner described in 2006: “…If brilliant technology were to end up threatening the kind of intellect that produced it.”

In this era of digitalization, print books are given no quarter.  E-books are changing the way we create, disseminate, and display information, and nearly any device can be turned into an e-reader.  Dedicated e-readers are like little libraries, able to carry thousands of books within a compact space.  E-books are cheaper, more environment-friendly, and can be personalized in terms of font, size, display color contrast, etc.  E-readers are often also tablets, giving them a multi-functional advantage over a print book.

Another comparative advantage of e-books over traditional print books is the upfront cost. Textbook prices in particular can be an extremely heavy burden for an already-impoverished college student, oftentimes a required purchase with no guarantee that the professor will actually assign reading from the book.  Naturally, in the name of economy, the e-textbook is presented as an option that can be downloaded (even ‘rented’ temporarily), and accessed with nearly any device the student may have.  A study with high school students demonstrated that students themselves see the benefit and allure of carrying a single Portable Electronic Device (PED) and not twenty pounds of different textbooks.

This discussion is not meant to turn into an “us. Vs. them” battle.  Readers today still purchase print books, perhaps more purposefully so that they may take advantage of the full-bodied pleasure that comes from holding a book in one’s hands, smelling the pages, and taking the time to read deeply.  But these same readers will also consume digital content, and they will do so in a nonlinear manner: perhaps pulling together journal articles to create a unified paper for a graduate school course, or sifting through YouTube videos and other multimedia to find a how-to guide.  This is transformation, not destruction, says Mark Gross of Book Business Insight. “Freed from just print, the new economies of electronic ‘publishing’ have already transformed many areas of the publishing industry…. With the cost of publishing content greatly reduced, and the new ease to distribute globally, publishers can now find viable audiences for materials that were previously too obscure or specialized.”

We are not going to go back to an era where e-books simply don’t exist, and e-books are not going to eradicate print books. Publishing industry maven Jane Friedman thinks of the e-book as complementary to, rather than competing with, the print book.  She said in a 2008 interview with Bill Moggridge, “Physical books will not disappear, but the reading experience will change dramatically.”  Nearly a decade later, we see that the reading landscape has indeed changed dramatically, with print books and e-books coming to a new equilibrium.  New advances in technology have made our e-readers more print-like than ever with the advantages of e-Ink and backlighting that reduces problems like eyestrain.

For our brains, our retention of information and the question of exercising that developed ability to take in, process, and think upon what we read the best solution may be as simple as making sure we (and our children!) take purposeful time away from the screens and non-linear reading to ensure that we get to practice that deep, slow reading that we associate with printed books. ◆

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