With all the discussions of eyestrain that have taken place over the last few years, you can imagine the double-take I executed when I saw an article in The Telegraph that suggests e-readers can be too easy to read. Neuroscience blogger Jonah Lehrer suggests that, because e-book readers have easy-to-read fonts that produce minimal eyestrain and do not require as much effort to read, they actually interfere with information retention by subconsciously suggesting that the information we read isn’t as “important” as information that’s harder to process.

It sounds like a load of psychological mumbo-jumbo, but then I remembered mentioning a study back in October that had found difficult-to-read fonts did lead to better information retention. So, is “ease” of reading something we should turn away from? Should we all set our e-book reader fonts to Comic Sans?

Something tells me people are going to be thinking about these questions a lot in years to come.

(Found via Slashdot.)


  1. Retention of data does not equal enjoyment of reading. The uses of the e-readers vs the goals of the study used aren’t necessarily the same. Not only that, the study is extremely weak science. It was based on 28 volunteers and simply tested their recall memory. There are alot of assumptions and extensions of the research that weren’t actually tested or proven. If you really want to see how the fonts or image difficulty of the words relates to neuroanatomy, you would need to use PET scans to image which areas of the brain are activated when reading in the different fonts. This would be extra challenging in that you would need to evaluate the baseline volunteer’s interest and pre-existing knowledge of the written passage as both can effect the brain’s response to the passages used in the testing. Furthermore, the stats to show significance in such studies would be difficult since the costs of doing this with enough subjects to get enough power for significance may be prohibitive in time and money.

    This subject is quite interesting though. If you accept the baseline principle expressed in the original article, then there must be a tipping point between knowledge/understanding gained versus time versus actual difficulty in translating the visual words.

    Too bad I don’t have one of those old monitors with the nasty orange on black screen with the previous million pixels burned in to the background. Might learn more from it, but I would need to use alot of pain medication for the associated headaches.

  2. I would suggest that Chris is mixing two disconnected articles while trying to extrapolate common meaning. A mistake.

    The Telegraph article is a direct extension of the psych study claiming that difficult fonts help memorising. He NEVER refers to the reading of eBooks (in the sense of fiction and story telling) and is clearly only referring to the potential widespread use of eReaders to study in an academic situation.

    I just read Lehrer’s article and it is a heap of unmitigated twaddle, nothing less.
    He starts by admitting an irrational and emotional love affair with ‘books’. So we know from the start that he is incapable of any kind of real analysis.

    He then explains how a French neuroscientist claims that we read in two different ways. What he doesn’t establish (because the neuroscientist himself didn’t claims it) is whether one way is in ANY way better or superior or in any way leads to any difference in awareness of what is being read.

    Lehrer then races off like a hare on acid toward justification of his admitted biased viewpoint without a crumb of evidence. His musings on his ability to grasp his writing flaws only when printed are not even worth deconstructing.

    Good try but all very misleading.

  3. Font, type size, line length and leading can influence legibility and so can resolution, contrast and reflected or transmitted illumination. Together these all probably have influence on retention.

    I tend to consider the gross display distinction of paper and screen. Here reading is transacted either from an embodied physical medium or via a disembodied electronic image. This distinction includes other significant sub-distinctions of navigation, legibility, persistence and physical possession of content that can influence retention. Life is filled with flickering images but the physical, embodied experience of the paper book content can prompt lasting meaning. A reading device is a physical object as well, but it has no fixed association with a given content.

  4. I can remember things I saw through the “flickering images” of a television screen as well as I can remember printed texts… in some cases, better. The medium may impact how well you retain knowledge, but the person’s desire to learn and remember is even more important than the obstacles presented by the medium, allowing them to transcend the medium and its limitations.

  5. Well put, Steven. I have a flickering image memory of a saucer over-flying my back yard in the 1950’s. But no physical documentation. Likewise books on my reading devices (I have most of the dedicated book reading devices and many book reading applications) may not be conveyed forward.

  6. Logic suggests that we must acknowledge that there must be a difference in how the eye reacts to ink on paper, verses pixel-borne letters on a back-lit screen. Something tells me that in ten years or so some group will sum up a double-blind study by releasing a study concluding that reading on eReaders causes cancer. In many folks (including myself) reading on digital screens causes eye-strain and headaches IF conducted on too large a scale. As in most aspects of life moderation is the key, as well as occasional variety. I read paper books 1/3 of the time, digital literature 1/3 of the time and listen to audio books–while knitting–for the other portion of my literature consumption.

  7. With dyslexic children, one of the contributing factors is apparently hard to read script, whether handwritten or printed. So I don’t set much store by this so-called research. Surveying 28 people is not particularly significant either is it?
    Personally I find italics much harder to read, but I prefer printed text to handwritten

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