I have read almost a dozen articles in the past few days that attempt to puzzle out the new hot question: do our brains process screen text differently from paper text? Does reading too much online somehow ‘ruin’ our brains for long-form reading?
I’ll state at the outset that from everything I’ve read on this, science does not have a definitive verdict on reading print vs screen, so I can’t answer these questions. What I can do is apply my own decently well-educated common sense filter to some of the things I’m reading and come to my own conclusion.
Firstly, this one from the New York Times. From the article:
“In a second study looking at students’ use of e-books created with Apple’s iBooks Author software, the Schugars discovered that the young readers often skipped over the text altogether, engaging instead with the books’ interactive visual features.”
This actually rings true to me. In a review I myself wrote for Teleread way back in 2012 on an interactive ebook app, I highlighted this very danger. The app had fallen into the trap of paper replication, so that sentences were rendered as they had been in the print edition, and not chunked to prevent splitting across screens. This forced kids to either abandon the interactive elements so they could finish the sentence first, or to abandon the story so that they could play with the interactive illustrations. I do think that’s a legitimate criticism, and that app makers should consider it going forward.
Then there was this one, from the Washington Post:
“To cognitive neuroscientists, Handscombe’s experience is the subject of great fascination and growing alarm. Humans, they warn, seem to be developing digital brains with new circuits for skimming through the torrent of information online. This alternative way of reading is competing with traditional deep reading circuitry developed over several millennia.”
This one, I am not so sure about. Speaking anecdotal, I do think my skimming skills are much improved. I can go through a 500-link Feedly scan during my morning commute, and be ready to send Juli the morning links when I get to work. But I do also choose to read long-form novels, and my ability to do so is undiminished.
To make another analogy, think of a person who plays more than one sport. Does their ability in one sport negatively affect their ability in another one? During the Vancouver Winter Olympics, Canada’s flag bearer—who them went on to medal during those games—was Clara Hughes, the first Canadian athlete to medal in both the summer and winter Olympic games. Clearly, her acquisition of a second sport, cycling, left her speed skating ability undiminished.
If the reader quoted in the story is choosing to skim as opposed to deep read, isn’t that a conscious choice on her part? She is, to continue the analogy, choosing to abandon one sport in favour of a new one. Doesn’t she have the option to choose to practice both?