The New York Times wonders if E-Books are inherently less pleasing for the brain that ink on a page. They canvass a diverse group of experts, most of whom focus on the nature of attention during the reading process. They see old-fashioned printed books as a distraction-free medium, stark and pure and elemental. Here, for instance, is Maryanne Wolf, a neuroscientist at Tufts and author of the excellent Proust and the Squid:
I have no doubt that the new mediums [like E-Books] will accomplish many of the goals we have for the reading brain, particularly the motivation to learn to decode, read and experience the knowledge that is available. As a cognitive neuroscientist, however, I believe we need rigorous research about whether the reading circuit of our youngest members will be short-circuited, figuratively and physiologically.
For my greatest concern is that the young brain will never have the time (in milliseconds or in hours or in years) to learn to go deeper into the text after the first decoding, but rather will be pulled by the medium to ever more distracting information, sidebars, and now,perhaps, videos (in the new vooks).
Like Wolf, I’m mildly concerned that we’re slowly losing the talent for long-form immersion. I struggled through a Tolstoy epic a few months ago, and though I finished the book – after falling asleep to the same page for several weeks – I couldn’t help but get frustrated at all the digressions and interruptions. 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.
That said, I don’t worry too much about the effect of E-Books on the reading brain. I think one of the most interesting findings regarding literacy and the human cortex is the fact that there are actually two distinct pathways activated by the sight of letters. (The brain is stuffed full of redundancies.) 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.
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. By studying this process in an fMRI machine, Dehaene could see why: reading text that was highly degraded or presented in an unusual fashion meant that we relied on a completely different neural route, known as the dorsal reading pathway. Although scientists had previously assumed that the dorsal route ceased to be active once we learned how to read, Deheane’s research demonstrates that even literate adults still rely, in some situations, on the same patterns of brain activity as a first-grader, carefully sounding out the syllables.
What does this have to do with E-Books? This research suggests that the act of reading observes a gradient of fluency. 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 larger point is that most complaints about E-Books and Kindle apps boil down to a single problem: they don’t feel as “effortless” or “automatic” as old-fashioned books. But here’s the wonderful thing about the human brain: give it a little time and practice and it can make just about anything automatic. We excel at developing new habits. Before long, digital ink will feel just as easy as actual ink.