Neuroscience on eBooks

The neuroscience of reading is an incredibly fascinating topic — does the brain process words on a printed page differently than words on a screen? How? Why? And what could those things tell us about how our the reading experience in our brains?

Mashable (“Ebooks or Printed Books: Which Are Better for You?”) shares a recent study from Johannes Gutenberg University on screen reading vs. printed text:

“There are no disadvantages to reading from electronic reading devices compared with reading printed texts,” according to a study by Research Unit Media Convergence of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU).

The study proved that reading from an electronic device instead of print has no negative effects, contradicting the misconception from German readers.”

Science Daily (“Reading a Book Versus a Screen: Different Reading Devices, Different Modes of Reading?”) provides some additional details. One of the more interesting findings contrasts the readers’ subjective perceptions on reading and the objective results —

“However, the result of the study stands in stark contrast with the participants’ subjective reaction. “Almost all of the participants stated that they liked reading a printed book best. This was the dominant subjective response, but it does not match the data obtained from the study,”

Similarly, the participants’ subjective perceptions did not match the results of a comparison of e-ink readers and printed paper texts. Almost all participants stated that reading from paper was more comfortable than from an e-ink reader despite the fact that the study actually showed that there was no difference in terms of reading performance between reading from paper and from an e-ink reader. “We have thus demonstrated that the subjective preference for the printed book is not an indicator of how fast and how well the information is processed,” concludes Professor Schlesewsky.”

Preference seems like a rather tricky thing to measure objectively. How to quantify level of comfort while reading? Is there, for instance, some immeasurable quality beyond eye tracking and text comprehension that plays into this? I’m inclined to think so, whatever it might be.

I’m extremely curious for more details about this study. How large of a sample size? What kinds of participants were in the young and elderly adults? What kinds of reading materials? How long was the reading measured for?

“The study analyzed the differences in reading from various kinds of media (e-book, tablet PC, paper) in two sample groups, young and elderly adults. Each participant read various texts with different levels of complexity on an e-book reader (Kindle 3), on a tablet PC (iPad), and on paper. The reading behavior and the participants’ corresponding neural processes were assessed by means of concurrent measures of eye movements (eye tracking) and electrophysiological brain activity (EEG). The criteria that were taken into account and analyzed were changes in the theta frequency band power, reading behavior, text comprehension, and information recall as well as the participants’ preferences for the respective medium.”

I haven’t seen a great deal of scientific research of this sort on reading print vs. digital question. Does anyone else know of interesting research being done? I’d love to know.


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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

tyler shores cambridge

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