Want to really learn and remember? Read on paper

The screen can do marvelous things for the reading experience. But what do you give up when you read on a screen instead of on paper? Very possibly some comprehension and retention, researchers are finding. In short, when you want to dig in and really learn something, it might be smart to turn to the printed page.

Reading is a physical affair

The brain’s response to text read onscreen is different from its response to the printed word, as Ferris Jabr writes in a fascinating Scientific American article that explores the research on the topic. (If this post interests you at all, I very much recommend the full article.)

It’s well established that getting away from your multipurpose screen improves concentration, Ferris writes. Researchers suggest that screens, with their glare and navigational demands, are more physically and mentally tiring, which seems to make it somewhat harder to comprehend and remember what you’ve read.

Onscreen navigation also lacks a physicality that appears to be important to the brain. The brain treats individual letters as objects, and researchers think that we may perceive any given text in its entirety as a kind of physical landscape. “When we read, we construct a mental representation of the text in which meaning is anchored to structure,” Ferris writes. “Both anecdotally and in published studies, people report that when trying to locate a particular piece of written information they often remember where in the text it appears.” Screens “inhibit people from mapping the journey in their minds.”

The digital industry is of course working on this problem. Check out this e-book interface prototype that uses a variety of swipes to let you “flip” through the book one page a time or a bunch, quickly or slowly. Pretty neat.

Screens give you a bad attitude

Other emerging studies indicate that we don’t bring the same mental attention to screens that we do to paper, Ferris writes. “Subconsciously, many people think of reading on a computer or tablet as a less serious affair than reading on paper.” One study concluded that when people read on screens, they tend to take a lot of shortcuts, browsing and scanning. Another showed that we’re less likely to set goals for our reading, to do things like reread difficult sections.

Such attitudes may change more readily than our brains.

Related note: Writing beats typing

Along the same lines, writing by hand apparently has distinct advantages over typing. It requires very different brain processes, according to an October 2012 Wall Street Journal article, “How Handwriting Trains the Brain.” The finger movements are far more complex, activating large regions of the brain involved in thinking, language, and working memory. Writing by hand actually aids cognitive development, which has implications for children’s schooling. It seems to engage long-term memory too.

So when taking notes for learning purposes, try picking up a pen for change. Just be prepared for how out of shape your hand might be.

I’ve been a spotty journal keeper, going through phases (more like eras) with it. The most recent phase has been virtual retirement. Well, after a hiatus of more than year, I recently hunkered down at my favorite café with a huge mug of chai and went into a three-hour journal-writing frenzy. My hand was absolutely killing me. Two weeks and two more writing sessions later, my hand was somewhat less clawlike when I headed home.

Tangent: At the same time, save paper!

Let me close by affirming that it’s good to save paper. Paper poses all kinds of problems. For example, more than 70 percent of the world’s paper supply is made not from trees grown for that purpose but from trees harvested from natural forests—often ecologically valuable, biologically diverse habitat. And forests are continually being converted into tree plantations, which support only about 10 percent of the species that natural forests do.

Yet e-readers, tablets, and computers are obviously extremely resource intensive in their own ways. Just think about all the mining, the ongoing energy use . . .

Using recycled paper helps a lot—see this Green America paper fact sheet. One ton of 100 percent postconsumer copy paper has been calculated to save the equivalent of two dozen 40-foot, 6- to 8-inch diameter trees, 7,000 gallons of water, 4,100 kilowatt hours of electricity, and 60 pounds of air pollution. Wow.


Gwendolyn Bounds, “How Handwriting Trains the Brain,” Wall Street Journal, 5 Oct. 2012 (no longer available online).

Ferris Jabr, “The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper versus Screens,” Scientific American, 11 Apr. 2013.

(Image via Creative Commons by Ed Yourdon)

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