Thursday, October 15, 2009

Does the Brain Like E-Books?

In the New York Times today, Sandra weighs in on the differences in reading a physical book vs. an electronic book - and possible reasons why, in some ways, print still wins. Check it out here.



In an upcoming issue of Technology Review, from MIT, the following very brief oped letter appears in the Nov-Dec issue: titled [The Way We Read Now]

One reader -- Danny Bloom in Taiwan -- was intrigued by the potential of a new pressure-sensitive touch screen (\"A Touch of Ingenuity,\" September/October 2009) that could be used in a wide variety of applications, including e-reader screens. He wrote in:

I wonder if in the future we might need a new word to differentiate the kind of reading we do on computer or e-reader screens from the kind of reading we do on paper surfaces. I have heard a few new terms being bandied about on the Internet: screen-reading, browsing, skimming, scanning, even \"diging.\" Reading is reading, of course. But we might not be \"reading\" the new-and-improved newspapers and magazines of the future. We might be \"screening\" them.

I am so glad to see this discussion taking place here, and I hope the story breaks into the print edition later, too. The points of view above are very good to read and study, and there are more people to interview and talk to: Edward Tenner, Christian Vandenthorpe, Thad McIlroy, Anne Mangen in Norway, William Powers (who wrote the essay Hamlet's BlackBerry, soon to be a book in mid 2010), Bill Hill former Microsoft design and readability guru, Paul Saffo the futurist, Kevin Kelly who is writing a book called Technium now, Sharon Shaloo at the Center for the book in Boston, Jakob Nielsen, Don Norman, James Fallows, Erick Schonfeld, Kara Swisher and many more. Oy yes, and don't forget Mr. Bloom with his blog that has been focusing on these issues for the past six months at :

You asked: Is there a difference in the way the brain takes in or absorbs information when it is presented electronically versus on paper? ANSWER: Yes there is. MRI scans will show this as science soon.

You asked: Does the reading experience change, from retention to comprehension, depending on the medium? ANSWER: Yes it does.

Conclusion: in fact, reading on paper is so different from reading on screens, on the networked screen and on Kindles, that it is quote possible that we will need a new word or term for this new kind of reading sxperience. Maybe not. But I feel a new word is needed in order to help us study these issues.

My suggestion: screening, for reading on screens. Others have suggtested screading, scanning, skimming, browising, grazing, and one New York Times reporter told me in a private email that he likes the word diging for digital reading. Marvin Minsky at MIT has some good things to say about these issues too. Ask him for his POV one day, too, as a followup to this very good post. Bravo!


Sandra, that was a great Times blog this week, I am the lone blogger in Taiwan who tirelessly spent 6 months trying to set up such a blog discussion, and I was turned down countless times by the Times editors who runs the Tech blogs and the Papercuts blog and everyone at the Times said no. they even told me to get lost. But finally, I asked the RFD people and they did it. Cool. Here is what I want to tell you and Sam.

Since reading on paper and reading on screens are two different animals, might be useful or beneficial and intersting for the culture to come up with a new word or term for reading on screens, such as screening or screading, etc...... do you have any suggestions about this. this is now my life's work. Who knew? Go figure! Danny Bloom, in Taiwan, Tufts 1971

my blog at

i am in touch with everyone on this: Edward Tenner, Charles Bigelow, Bill Hill, William Powers, Alex Beam, John Markoff, Anne Mangen, do you KNOW her work, she is my teacher on this, Kevin Kelly, Paul Saffo, Maryanne Wolf ( I am a Tufts alum) and many more. I have 100 experts on my informal team. There is no leader. I am just the errand boy.


Sandra and Sam

please email danny bloom at danbloom AT gmail DOT com. we need to chat by email.... my letter on this will appear in MIT Technology Review upcoming Nov, issue

Neuroscientists have discovered that reading on compter screens or
Kindle e-reader screens causes changes in white matter, the nerve
strands which help different parts of the brain communicate with each

University researchers recruited 48 young adults who do most of their
reading on computer screens and e-readers -- and hardly ever read text
on paper surfaces anymore -- and put them in a functional magnetic
resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner to get a cross-section map of their

Half the volunteers then underwent a six-week period where they read
online and on a Kindle or a SONY E-reader device, during which they
were encouraged to do this for four hours a day.During the experiment, they never read print newspapers or magazines or books.

They were then scanned again, as were their 24 non-screem-reading
counterparts. who also read for four hours a day but on paper books,
newspapers and magazines.

Among the screen-reading group, imaging showed important changes in
white matter, the bundle of long nerve fibres that carry electrical
signals between nerve cells and connect different areas of the brain.

So-called grey matter consists of areas of nerve cells where the brain
processes information.

The findings, published online now, are important, for they suggest
the brain remains "plastic" -- or mobile and adaptable -- beyond

"We tend to think of the brain as being static, or even beginning to
degenerate, once we reach adulthood," the study's leader said in a
press release.

"In fact we find the structure of the brain is ripe for change. We've
shown that it is possible for the brain to condition its own wiring
system to operate in a different manner when reading on paper or when
reading on a screen."

Reading on a screen, compared to reading on paper surfaces, was
selected for the experiment because it is a difficult motor skill to
master, which means that any cerebral changes would show up more

To read online or on a Kindle requires a new kind of understanding of
reading, and the ability to track text using screened pixels.

In fact changes in white matter seen after six weeks occurred
precisely in those parts of the brain that are involved in these

"This doesn't mean everyone should go out and start screen-reading to
improve their brains," said the study team leader.

"We chose screen-reading purely as a way to try to show the
differences between reading on paper and reading on a scren. But there
is a 'use it or lose it' school of thought, in which any way of
keeping the brain working is a good thing, such as going for a walk or
doing a crossword."

He said clinical applications could eventually follow, such as ways to
stimulate the brain and maintain neurological health for both paper
readers and screen-readers.

"Knowing that pathways in the brain can be enhanced may be significant
in the long run in coming up with new treatments for certain
neurological problems, such as lack of critical analysis skills, where
these pathways become degraded among longterm screen-readers."


Let me give you advance notice:

On June 9-12, 2010, we will have a conference at XXX ask me where on
"The Future of Reading". We have invited speakers from a
broad range of fields, including vision science, type design,
publishing, e-books, writing system, history of print,
and other areas. More details will be available when we
launch our webs site next month. Hope you can make it

anne said...

I read the story in The New York Times with great interest, and I wonder if you could give me the references to those recent studies you refer to, which show how the differences in reading comprehension between reading electronic and print texts have faded (ref. in the first paragraph of the blogpost in NY Times). Thanks,
Anne Mangen (

Sam Wang said...

For a good review of the recent literature comparing electronic
reading to paper, see

Computer- vs. paper-based tasks: Are they equivalent? Jan M. Noyesa and Kate J. Garland (2008) Ergonomics 51(9):1352-1375.