Friday, October 16, 2009

E-Reading and The Brain

Is there a difference in the way the brain takes in or absorbs information when it is presented electronically versus on paper?
asks The New York Times. It is a very pertinent question, as we rush headlong into a future of e-books and paperless libraries. And it's addressed by a whole bunch of experts in the field.

On whether and how reading on a computer or electronic device rewires the brain, Tufts Professor Maryanne Wolf, author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain says :
After many years of research on how the human brain learns to read, I came to an unsettlingly simple conclusion: We humans were never born to read. We learn to do so by an extraordinarily ingenuous ability to rearrange our “original parts” — like language and vision, both of which have genetic programs that unfold in fairly orderly fashion within any nurturant environment. Reading isn’t like that.

Each young reader has to fashion an entirely new “reading circuit” afresh every time. There is no one neat circuit just waiting to unfold. This means that the circuit can become more or less developed depending on the particulars of the learner: e.g., instruction, culture, motivation, educational opportunity.

Equally interesting, this tabula rasa circuit is shaped by the particular requirements of the writing system: for example, Chinese reading circuits require more visual memory than alphabets. This “open architecture” of the reading circuit makes the young reader’s developing circuit malleable to what the medium (e.g., digital online reading, book, etc) emphasizes.

And that, of course, is the problem at hand. No one really knows the ultimate effects of an immersion in a digital medium on the young developing brain.
And she warns :
The child’s imagination and children’s nascent sense of probity and introspection are no match for a medium that creates a sense of urgency to get to the next piece of stimulating information.I have no doubt that the digital immersion of our children will provide a rich life of entertainment and information and knowledge. My concern is that they will not learn, with their passive immersion, the joy and the effort of the third life, of thinking one’s own thoughts and going beyond what is given. Let us bring our best thought and research to preserving what is most precious about the present reading brain as we add the new capacities of its next iteration.
Not surprisingly, distraction was listed by several of the experts as one of the main problems with reading electronically.

Sandra Aamodt (former editor in chief of Nature Neuroscience and co-author of Welcome to Your Brain: Why You Lose Your Car Keys but Never Forget How to Drive and Other Puzzles of Everyday Life) tells us (what sadly we all know too well!) :
To a great extent, the computer’s usefulness for serious reading depends on the user’s strength of character. Distractions abound on most people’s computer screens. The reading speed reported in academic studies does not include delays induced by clicking away from the text to see the new email that just arrived or check out what’s new on your favorite blog. In one study, workers switched tasks about every three minutes and took over 23 minutes on average to return to a task. Frequent task switching costs time and interferes with the concentration needed to think deeply about what you read.
And Gloria Mark professor in the Department of Informatics, University of California, Irvine adds :
Reading online is thus not just about reading text in isolation. When you read news, or blogs or fiction, you are reading one document in a networked maze of an unfathomable amount of information. My own research shows that people are continually distracted when working with digital information. They switch simple activities an average of every three minutes (e.g. reading email or IM) and switch projects about every 10 and a half minutes. It’s just not possible to engage in deep thought about a topic when we’re switching so rapidly.
But paper books still come out on top. David Gelernter, a professor of computer science at Yale University, reckons :
All reading is not migrating to computer screens. So long as books are cheap, tough, easy to “read” from outside (What kind of book is this? How long is it? Is this the one I was reading last week? Let’s flip to the pictures), easy to mark up, rated for safe operation from beaches to polar wastes and — above all — beautiful, they will remain the best of all word-delivery vehicles.


katztales said...

I can remember where information is in a book (which section of the book to within a few pages, whether it is left/right page, whether it is top/middle/third of page) for some time - in some cases, years.

With digital information, I often remember the day I read it, what time of day, and what I was doing before and after, which makes it easier to locate using my History.

With films, I can remember whole chunks for months after which makes reruns a real pain!

But one thing is bugging me. IN 1989 I bought a Penguin Classic Crime book (pale green spine, painting on the front of a hotel I think). It was a collection of three stories set in 1920s or 1930s England (the south) and it was narrated by the murderer. He kills a series of shop girls. His method is to buy them "gin and it's" in posh hotels, whiz them about the country and then quietly kill them. Any idea what the title or author it? It's really annoying me!

katztales said...

PS, a "gin and it" is gin and sweet vermouth... yuk.