A small but growing number of researchers are uncovering evidence that readers are better able to remember what they read in printed books long-term when compared to materials read via an electronic screen. The results are raising questions on their value as learning tools, especially as tablets make their way into education.
How the Brain Absorbs Digital vs. Printed Text: The Crucial Difference Between "Knowing" and "Remembering"
As tablets become more prevalent, scientists are finding differences in how the brain interprets printed text and digital text, a major concern for parents and educators if tablets are to become a primary teaching tool.
Kate Garland, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Leicester in England, conducted a study on the effects of e-books on memory, "bombarding" psychology students with questions on economics after reading digital and printed versions of texts, and finding two key learning differences.
First, students using digital versions of the unfamiliar material had to read the same information several times to gain the same level of knowledge as print readers. Second, students reading printed books seemed to more fully digest and understand the material.
Garland explains that memories come either from "knowing" something so well it "just comes to you," or "remembering" it by first deciphering the context and then recalling the answer. "Knowing" is the higher form of memory, because these thoughts arrive faster and more seamlessly.
"What we found was that people on paper started to 'know' the material more quickly over the passage of time," says Garland. "It took longer and... more repeated testing to get into that knowing state with the computer reading, but eventually the people who did it on the computer caught up with the people who were reading on paper."
The Importance of Physical Locations and Human Memory
Scientists theorize another factor, spatial context, is also particularly important when dealing with memorization. In his blog, neuroscientist Mark Changizi explains that "in nature, information comes with a physical address [and often a temporal one], and one can navigate to and from the address. Those raspberry patches we found last year are over the hill and through the woods -- and they are still over the hill and through the woods."
For millions of years before the Internet, "the mechanisms for information storage were largely spatial and could be navigated, thereby tapping into our innate navigation capabilities. Our libraries and books -- the real ones, not today's electronic variety -- were supremely navigable."
In other words, the human brain uses location to recall the words it reads, which helps reinforce the information. To trigger a memory, the brain might recall whether it read the information at the top, middle, or bottom of the page, remember a corresponding picture on the page, or even a page number -- essentially creating a mental bookmark to cue recall of the information.
"Anyone who has read an e-book can attest that the page provides fewer spatial landmarks than print," Changizi continues. "In a sense, the page is scrolled without incident, infinite and limitless, which can be dizzying. On the other hand, printed books give physical reference points, which can be particularly helpful in recalling how far along in the book we are, something that's more challenging to assess on an e-book."
Meanwhile, E-Books Aren't Going Away...
Any new medium, however, presents new challenges. In his blog entry for the New York Times, Alan Liu, chair and professor of English at UC Santa Barbara, says gleaning information from text isn't just biological or neurological, but social as well.
"Initially, any new information medium seems to degrade reading because it disturbs the balance between focal and peripheral attention... it takes time and adaptation before a balance can be restored, not just in the 'mentality' of the reader, as historians of the book like to say, but in the social systems that complete the reading environment."
In other words, new practices around e-reading need to evolve before humans are able to absorb the information held in e-books, as quickly and as fully as before. But this is no new challenge -- throughout history, new technologies sparked fierce debate among critics and philosophers, including Plato, who thought writing would ruin focal memory.
The distinctions are subtle, but with companies like Apple aiming to "revolutionize textbooks" by getting more iPads into U.S. schools, the results are increasingly important to understand.
There are many positives to digital books that educators want to draw upon. Tablets can easily update information and assignments, high-resolution audio and video illustrate and reinforce concepts, and with online assignments, students gain the ability to interact with the material they're learning. Data storage is also a plus, as students can store a school year's worth of homework, quizzes, and files in one convenient place.
But if students need to take longer to absorb the material and have a harder time learning what they are reading, the effects of that lag could seep down in unexpected ways.
Readers Need to Take Charge and Be Aware
What does it all boil down to? Basically -- and here's one for the philosophers -- control largely rests with the individual. People read digital text 20 to 30 percent slower than print, but that might be due to the many distractions online reading presents. Advertisements, links to other articles, and pop-up email notifications all affect concentration and force readers to re-scan material, adding extra time to the experience.
Fortunately, habits can change. According to Sandra Aamodt, former editor in chief of Nature Neuroscience, "Fifteen or 20 years ago, electronic reading also impaired comprehension compared to paper, but those differences have faded in recent studies. To a great extent, the computer's usefulness for serious reading depends on the user's strength of character."
Ultimately, technology is changing the way we think and learn, but it only hinders us if we let it. Being aware of the potential pitfalls is key to success, and 20 years from now, flying cars might be the next big cause for concern.