What eBooks Do To Our Brains

When thinking about the reading experience of printed books compared to ebooks, we generally make arguments for one or the other in terms of our own subjective reading experience. But — could neuroscience ofter some insight into how those reading experiences differ?

Jonah Lehrer (The Frontal Cortex: “Reading, E-Books and the Brain”) wonders if we’re slowly losing the ability to become engrossed in reading for long periods of time.

“I’m ashamed of my impatience, but in a world oversaturated with information I wonder if it’s increasingly hard to savor the languid process of reading a really long book. Our attention is a scarce resource, and there’s more competition for that resource than ever before.”

More to the point, he goes on to discuss, there are two different brain pathways related to the reading process, based upon whether the reading we encounter is “familiar” or “unfamiliar”. There’s the ventral pathway —

“As the lab of Stanislas Dehaene has found, when people are reading “routinized, familiar passages” a part of the brain known as the visual word form area (VWFA, or the ventral pathway) is activated. This pathway processes letters and words in parallel, allowing us to read quickly and effortlessly. It’s the pathway that literate readers almost always rely upon.

And the dorsal reading pathway —

“But Dehaene and colleagues have also found a second reading pathway in the brain, which is activated when we’re reading prose that is “unfamiliar”. (The scientists trigger this effect in a variety of ways, such as rotating the letters, or using a hard to read font, or filling the prose with obscure words.) As expected, when the words were more degraded or unusual, subjects took longer to comprehend them.”

So: ebooks. It’s possible, then, that because we’re generally more familiar with the reading of printed words on a page, that this would proceed along the familiar (ventral) pathway. And perhaps, then, a less familiar type of reading — ebooks on screens — follows the unfamiliar (dorsal) reading pathway. It’s a theory, but it uses a lot of impressively sciencey-sounding words, so it’s something to think about:

“Familiar sentences printed in Helvetica activate the ventral route, while difficult prose filled with jargon and fancy words and printed in an illegible font require us to use the slow dorsal route. Here’s my rampant speculation (and it’s pure speculation because no one has brought a Kindle into a scanner): new reading formats (such as computer screens or E-Books) might initially require a bit more dorsal processing, as our visual cortex adjusts to the image. (One has to remember that printed books have been evolving to fit the peculiar sensory habits of the brain for hundreds of years — they’re a pretty perfect cultural product.) But then, after a few years, the technology is tweaked and our brain adjusts and the new reading format is read with the same ventral fluency as words on a page.”

The hopeful note that Jonah ends on, is that all of our brains are plastic enough to be able to adapt to a new type of reading, given enough time. Which type of reading experience we ultimately prefer — printed or digital — is still very much a matter for discussion.

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

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