The Frontal Cortex

Reading, E-Books and the Brain

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.

Comments

  1. #1 OftenWrongTed
    October 16, 2009

    After limited use of a borrowed E-Book I find that while I am grateful to be able to read a finely written text, I’m limited by my aging eyesight. At present the printed book, especially a hard-bound edition, is easier on my eyes.

  2. #2 sciencegoddess
    October 16, 2009

    I appreciate your insight into this topic (as always). It is certainly important to speculate and investigate what new reading interfaces might be doing to a new generation of children. I agree, as well, that we continually adapt to new technologies so will hurdle any perceived difficulties easily.

    I laughed at the comment that no one has brought a Kindle into the fMRI machine! I just bought a Kindle and enjoy it immensely. I love to read and don’t forsee abandoning real books, but the Kindle definitely has some features that have won me over. Many features are wonderful, but one I especially enjoy is the option to select font size and words per line, allowing you to optimize the page to a setting that your brain is most comfortable using to quickly assimilate the information within the book.

    Like you and Wolf, I agree with our seeming loss of “talent for long-form immersion”. It is one reason why I review popular science books. It is my subtle hint indicating that if you want to pursue science and to understand something novel and potentially difficult, one must cultivate a longer attention span. Books, rather than a TV show displaying the same, but condensed and visual material, provide that opportunity.

  3. #3 William
    October 16, 2009

    For what it’s worth (not much), I’ve read more E-Books than analog(?) books and I have a much easier time reading E-Books. Though the order of causation is a mystery to me.

    I do own more physical books however, since they make fine decoration. (But I have read most of those, too!)

  4. #4 Just Another Artist with a Love for Science
    October 16, 2009

    I’m a photographer who has worked with good old black and white film to digital media (18 years). What no one mentions here is the way that the video monitor (different than a Kindle, I admit) is a matter of lines a screen with different refresh rates.

    One of the wonderful things about words on an actual page is how your eyes don’t have to constantly work with the degrees of quality in different kinds of video monitors.

    I’m not an expert on video screens. I leave that to my friends who work with more cutting edge (expensive) kinds of tech. However, as someone who happened to (perhaps waste) four years in a darkroom, all while luckily cohabitating with a computer geek (oh the fun of Adobe version 2.x) and another couple years working on English and creative writing, I have a healthy respect for both digital and analog. Both have their ups and downs. However, no one has spoken about the way an image is created on screen.

    The kinds of prose that people are willing to put on a screen is also (in my humble opinion, with myself included – a five year old at my side begging for some scooby doo i tend to wander and not edit) not nearely as up to par as something we are committing to paper.

    Readability is more than just about fonts. Then again, as a devotee of audio books, I wonder what areas of my brain are sparking up as I read a perhaps wordy history I have to rewind often as I paint.

  5. #5 nsurg
    October 16, 2009

    I still have trouble reading scientific articles on the computer screen, and usually end up printing them out — computer/LCD screen reading has never become “effortless” or “automatic” for me. However, I haven’t found that e-Ink requires the same getting-used-to. After having used the Kindle (2.0) since June, I can say that it has made pleasure-reading easier and more enjoyable. Further, I have found that it makes reading a “really long book” easier (e.g., FDR, Team of Rivals) — it is a lot smaller and lighter than the paper version. I have given up on Anna Karenina twice, after making it past the 1/2 way point (paper version), for similar reasons that you mention, but would be up for trying it again on Kindle (third-time’s a charm?). For better or for worse, Kindle also makes it easier to read multiple books simultaneously.

  6. #6 steve
    October 16, 2009

    I’m not so sure we’re not romanticizing the traditional book by describing it as a perfected information acquisition medium. Have you tried reading a long book in mass market paperback form recently? You know how you have to crack the spine to see the full pages in the middle of the book? Or the fact that the pages don’t lie flat, so you feel like you’re reading around the edges of two coffee cans glued together? Or god forbid you get a copy in which the internal margins were cut too close to the text, and you have to pry the pages apart to see the last words on the left, and the first words on the right?

    Really, it can be an exhausting experience. Must really overwork that clunky dorsal pathway! No wonder we flounder in the middle of War and Peace. Our hands are cramped and our eyes are strained and we’re experiencing poor processing fluency. Once ‘electronic paper’ screens have solved the refresh rate problem, there will be no comparison in terms of comfort.

  7. #7 H Langeveld
    October 16, 2009

    I am an avid reader – even though I learned English as a foreign language in school, when I was given complete freedom in my choice of 15 books to read and discuss, I included Foundation, Dune, and Watership Down – and I read them cover to cover. I dropped a 150p book about some kids on a desert island in favour of Asimov’s 250p. movie adaptation Fantastic Voyage, in fine print.

    I’ve kept on reading ever since, and I still prefer reading from paper. I’ve got good eyesight, but digital text is slow and I can’t read when and where I want. I limit myself to short items, like these blogs.

    Lots of documentation these days comes in PDF format but reading from the screen, it takes much longer before I have an idea of where I am in the text.

    Fonts actually *do* matter for me I like them smooth and prefer any sans-serif over Times Roman for the screen. Since the proliferation of LCD screens I’ve used subpixel font smoothing and it makes text even better to read. I guess Times Roman and the coarse pixels trigger my dorsal reading pathway.

  8. #8 Ken
    October 16, 2009

    While I don’t own a Kindle, I have seen seen others using them. After a quick read down the ‘page’. I found it very easy to get used to. The font was larger due to the fact that the person set it that way. I also found that the screen and digital print were very much like paper and real print.

    I read the majority of my journal articles on-line, and I can say that in that case, my concentration is not always what it should be. However, when I get my hands on the hard copy of the same article, I can cruise through with no interuption. In this case, I wonder if it is not the fact that I’m used to multi-tasking on the computer but not when I have print in my hand.

  9. #9 Kenneth
    October 16, 2009

    Count me in with the satisfied Kindle users. I think one has to be careful not to over-generalize about either traditional printed media or e-books. As the comments here make clear, some people immediately assume “e-book” means a computer (not portable) and/or an LCD screen (emitting light at some refresh rate). I enjoy my Kindle specifically because it is portable (more portable than the lengthy books I prefer, in fact) and because it does not emit light. I look at a computer screen most of the day for work (and usually in the evening for entertainment as well), and the e-ink screen was a major draw for me.

    Likewise, printed books come in all grades of quality, from what you call a “pretty perfect cultural product” to illegible. (I have a friend who cannot read most mass market paperbacks because of small, poor quality type.)

    An interesting study for the NYT to take up would be if it is “inherently” more pleasing to the human mind to hear a human voice than to read anything, on any medium. Take that, newspapers and book publishers! :-)

  10. #10 lisa
    October 16, 2009

    Reading something with e-ink is a very different experience from reading on a computer. When reading my Sony, I only realize I’m not holding a book when I try to turn a page that isn’t there.

  11. #11 Anibal
    October 17, 2009

    At present, at least to me, no comprabale pleausure to the tocuh, smell… of a traditional book page. I´m a neo-luddite in this.

  12. #12 nsurg
    October 17, 2009

    Any idea if/when the Kindle edition of “Proust was a Neuroscientist” will come out?

  13. #13 M
    October 17, 2009

    No Kindle in Canada, but I can say that I have a similar type program on my iPhone (shortcovers), and it’s fantastic for reading in bed, but I do find it irritating sometimes. I much prefer reading in hardcopy. I’m a law student, and many of our cases are found online, and professors often post supplemental material online too- I always print it out. It’s impossible (in my opinion) to make notes on something that is electronic (at least not in a way that will be useful to me later). But, I also spend most of my day in front my my computer in class or making exam notes, so if I was to add in regular class readings on my computer, I’m like 95% sure that I’d be blind by now, from severe eye fatigue.

  14. #14 Bernie Goldbach
    October 18, 2009

    There’s a big difference between reading e-ink and reading on a laptop screen, especially under flourescent light. And there’s a big difference between getting your book on a Sony e-reader and an iPhone. The smaller screens seem to require more effort. In my case, I figure it will take more dorsal training and that’s why I’ve told Santa I need a 3G e-reader. I’ve heard he reads Science Blogs so I’m hopeful.

  15. #15 Parag Shah
    October 18, 2009

    Good post. When I first started reading on the computer screen I had a very hard time trying to focus. But now after several years it has improved. I think this is purely because I was familiar with paper books for a good many years and it took a while to get used to a new environment. For a generation of readers whose first book is a kindle, I think it may be effortless.

    I agree about the distraction part. A typical webpage (and maybe in future pages from e-books) has too many distractions, but I feel like my brain is getting better at tuning them out.

    The case in favor of e-books is pretty strong in my opinion. They allow for searching, increasing font sizes for people with weaker eyesight, easier annotation, text to speech, and perhaps in future even translations (which will allow us to read books written in other languages).

  16. #16 nancy @ Princeton Cryo LLC
    October 18, 2009

    The tradition of reading through a book will always stay no matter how much technology improves and different gadgets are poured on us. The simplicity of reading the ink and turning the pages is always a pleasure.

  17. #17 Offbeat Spirituality
    October 18, 2009

    EBooks have become a way of life for most of the internet junkies. The fact that they can be written by anyone is very inviting and that is why they have become very popular.

  18. #18 Tony Confrey
    October 18, 2009

    While people have been reading on screens for decades, we are only a very few years into the use of handheld reading devices, and only a year along the improvement curve that kicks in with mass market adoption. I believe that within a few years ereaders will match or exceed paper in resolution and size (think something that opens to newspaper size but folds down to an iPhone). At that point, and with purchased content on a dedicated reading device not an ad-filled web page, most of the NYTimes panels objections disappear.

    Rather than Professor Wolf’s comparison to ancient Greece and the evolution of reading, I think the more recent comparison can be seen in the migration of most writing to word processors. With the ability to spell check, erase, re-organize text on the fly, and leverage advanced typography, I doubt many writers would go back to their typewriters, or even less, quill and ink! The same thing will happen with reading. E-Books will give the ability to customize formatting, get word definitions, link to relevant sources, update material in real time, access recommendations and critique from your social network, *and* have all the worlds libraries with you wherever you go. No one will want to go back.

    The NYTimes article is titled ‘Does the brain like E-Books’. I think our brains will. Jonah, as you and Dr Wolf point out, reading is a learned, not a natural, trait. What *is* natural for our brains is to think and memorize in an associative manner – exactly the kind of model that can be supported with hypertext and an ereader.

    The generation born a few years hence may experience their first books in fold-able plastic form printed with e-ink on electric screens. Thats when we’ll get our first glimmer of where this revolution is really heading…

  19. #19 Ben Casnocha
    October 18, 2009

    Jonah,

    Long-time reader here, and we actually emailed about a piece I was writing on side projects (relating to the 3M guy we were both trying to track down).

    I wrote a piece for AEI in July on the attention issue, among other things related to internet info culture:

    http://american.com/archive/2009/june/rssted-development

    It’s long, but check it out!

    Thanks,
    Ben

  20. #20 Ron
    October 18, 2009

    I’m an avid reader for 50 years. Over the past three years I have finally switched from print to the variety of electronic reading devices for nearly everything I read.

    I read faster and noticed the increased speed immediately. Probably because I either was not reading novel new imagentic forms and/or caught onto them quickly. I think your post is interesting, but not likely important to the adoption of electronic reading forms.

  21. #21 Kurban bayramı turları
    October 19, 2009

    No Kindle in Canada, but I can say that I have a similar type program on my iPhone (shortcovers), and it’s fantastic for reading in bed, but I do find it irritating sometimes. I much prefer reading in hardcopy. I’m a law student, and many of our cases are found online, and professors often post supplemental material online too- I always print it out. It’s impossible (in my opinion) to make notes on something that is electronic (at least not in a way that will be useful to me later). But, I also spend most of my day in front my my computer in class or making exam notes, so if I was to add in regular class readings on my computer, I’m like 95% sure that I’d be blind by now, from severe eye fatigue.

  22. #22 Christopher Sweet
    October 19, 2009

    “…carefully sounding out the syllables.” Wow, that is a no-brainer. I teach composition and rhetoric in a community college, and I do a lot of oral work – out loud reading and rehearsing before writing. Of course people sound out words. Those who do not or cannot are in real trouble in school. I always coach students to sound it out if they encounter an unfamiliar word, and when the do, 9 times out of 10 (don’t trust the stats, but…) they recognize and comprehend the word.

    My spouse, who has the M.A. in Reading from a highly respected university, tells me what I do is “cutting edge” in the reading-education community.

    So why, and how, have scientists assumed that people don’t do this?

    I’ve always known there is an academic prejudice against linking the words on the page to the spoken voice, the oral voice, the sounded-out voice, but I never before suspected such a deep level of denial by academics.

    Where that oral/written link is encouraged, built-upon, preserved, and nurtured, the result is a fluent reader. Where that link is denied or prevented or precluded, you have some degree of illiteracy.

    How can researchers have missed this? How can intelligent people go so wrong as to think that learning to read stops, at some point, and that the connection to the spoken voice that alphabetic writing gives us is dispensable at any level?

  23. #23 Dr. L. Mark Carrier
    October 19, 2009

    I suspect there’s not much difference between printed copy and the e-reader. The goal of reading is to understand a message or a story and both devices tend to deliver the story in the same fashion. If anything, the e-reader has the advantage because it can be personally tailored to maximize the efficiency of reading. Research shows that reading in general is an attention-demanding process that is not multitasked much with other activities.

  24. #24 Xenia
    October 19, 2009

    People make fun of the way I highlight text and scribble in the margins, but I have breasts, so I get away with it. I’ll start reading e-books as soon as I can doodle in at least six different colors.

  25. #25 Danny Bloom
    October 22, 2009

    Hi Jonah,
    Came here via Matthew Battles blog post today re The Hogwash Statement by Danny Bloom, of which whom I am. Tufts 1971. Here is the beginning of his post and link above to see the rest. It’s very good and he of course mentions this blog and your book on Proust. Wonder if you can take a look one day at the 1000 posts on my blog at “zippy1300″ in the blogspot arena, I am trying to ask people to recommend a good word or term for reading on screens, since I feel screen reading is NOT REALLY “reading” per se. But I don’t know what to call it. I am the guy who asked the Times ROOM FOR DEBATE blog to do that Ebook post last week, after six months of getting the cold shoulder from the Bits blog people and the Papercuts people. Room for Debate rocks! They know a good topic when they hear it.

    Jonah, wonder if you can write about my campaign and my Hogwash Statement for Wired. They also give me the cold shoulder ever time I write to them, from Alexis Madgrigal to everyone else on the masthead. But Kevin Kelly, THE Kevin Kelly knows my work and he of all people told me in an email last summer: “I’d be happy to see the word SCREENING used as a verb for reading on screens.” And yet WIRED won’t give me the time of day! WTF? So, Jonah, my good man, can you try to digest what I am doing and write about it for Wired or the SUNDAY Times or any other news outfit. Print is best. I just had a letter in the print edition of Technology Review at MIT this Nov.-Dec. issue out now. Go look. It is the first time “screening” is used a word for reading on screens — in print…

    Email for info at danbloom in the gmail arena. Thanks

    Danny Bloom (1949 – 2032)

  26. #26 Danny Bloom
    October 23, 2009

    Jonah,
    I do hope you email me. Lots to talk about. A friend in the Netherlands tells me today: “There is a point to be made about how some corporate moguls are trying to push their e-reader gadgets down our throats. And the reason is
    simple: money. It is of course a publishers wet dream: no more book-design,
    no more printing, no warehouses, no more troubled nights – am I going to
    sell all this junk? Just myriads of half-edited digital books that still
    cost the earth without the costs.
    So it looks like ebooks are going to make it. And if I look at some of the
    reactions of librarians, who are willing and able to destroy their holdings,
    after digitizing the content in a half-baked way, one certainly starts to
    think about some kind of problem.
    Let me say this: the technology being what it is at the moment, I would not
    put my money on the Kindle, the Sony, the Nook …. I will buy the device that Steve Jobs probably is looking at now: a nice
    colour screen with Harry Potter and all the portraits of the wizards waving
    at me just like the movie while I read. But no, even Apple will not be able
    to create a device that will let me enjoy Proust. Bertelsman, Hachette and
    the rest of the bunch will certainly try to brainwash us, but they will not
    succeed. The reason is simple: the machines they offer are not good enough.
    Now you never know what happens in the garage next door where some bright
    Lex Luthor is doing his inventions, but e-ink … no. It does not work and
    it will not work, no matter what Barnes and Noble pay their tame journalists
    and bloggers to pretend the opposite and create a hype.”

  27. #27 Danny Bloom
    October 23, 2009

    And a very good comment from a new e-friend in Boston who says:

    “I do agree that MRI brain scan imaging offers a unique window on the uptake of new reading habits by the brain. In order to study the differences pro and con between paper reading and screen reading. But I think we miss an important part of the feedback/shock absorber of cultural and social change if we focus on the neurology alone.
    Imagine that MRI scans existed in the 14th and 15th centuries. Would Frederick III have been compelled to outlaw printing because scans showed that the brain handled it differently from manuscript text? I know that’s a simplification of what many people now are exploring, though.

    I mean to say only this: brain changes seen now may not be the ones we see in the future—the brain may incorporate e-text differently in subsequent generations as “native” e-text readers mature. And even if the brain does change in significant ways, and those changes manifest themselves in subsequent generations, maybe it happens not because we’ve lost something, but because we’ve asked culture, society — even technology — to carry the load. It’s happened again and again through the deep history of our species.

    All of which is to be understood under the sign of general agreement with the call of some experts and curious observers: let the brain scanning tests on paper reading vs screen reading begin!”

  28. #28 Danny Bloom
    October 23, 2009

    “Personally, I don’t think we’re going to learn what we need to know about the differences betweem paper reading and screen reading from fMRI brain scans. Neuroscience is at a very primitive stage.”

    Jonah, ask me ….who…. said that! You know her, I think.

    She also said to me in a recent email:

    “I think the answer is inside us. How to live with any new technology is ultimately a philosophical question. Always has been, always will be. We need a new philosophy for living with digital devices. That’s what my new book will really be about when it comes out in 2012.”

  29. #29 Danny Bloom
    October 23, 2009

    Jonah, Good spec but i respectfully DISAGREE. You need to ask if screen reading is as good as paper reading in terms of:

    1. processing of info and text and emotions and IDEAS
    2. retention of same
    3. empathy
    4. internalization
    5. analysis of info just read (and perhaps re-read, and circled or underlined or marked up)
    6. critical thinking skills observing info read

    What I “fear” is that we will lose our critical thinking skills and sense of empathy for others and ideas we encounter in literature and in newspaper stories IF THE NEWER generations do all their elementary school, junior HS and high school and college reading on screens, say by year 2050. As long as we keep paper books and paper newspapers and magazines alive and robust, everything will be okay. Reading on paper in combo with reading on screens is perfect. But if we say goodbye to paper reading, I fear for the future of human civilization and the empathy of ideas. We need to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water….is that a good slogan? I dunno.

    I am trying to get TIME or NEWSWEEK to do a major cover story on your post above, for mid 2010, not about gadgets and preferecnes, but about the SCIENCE and PHYSIOLOGY and PSYCHOLOGY and EMPATHY of reading. Interviews with 25 tops scientists and reading specialists and media critics. From William Powers to you. Any idea on how I can reach Richard Zoglin at TIME or Sharon Begley at Newsweek to recommend such a cover story for them? So far, they do not answer my emals. Sigh.

    richard_zoglin@timeinc.com
    sharon.begley@newsweek.com

    Generic emails that work but they only reply to VIPS, not to nobodies like me. SIGH.

    re: “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.”

  30. #30 Jon H
    October 25, 2009

    Often when there is a discussion of e-books and the brain, one or more of the esteemed contributors mentions ‘vooks’ and the like.

    That suggests to me that they are insufficiently able to tell the difference between a stillborn artifact of pure marketing hype (vooks) and the sorts of things that are likely to actually happen in the marketplace.

    Lady, vooks are not going to happen in any significant way, any more than video phones are going to take over the telecom industry. (Yes, people sometimes do video chats, but it’s far from the dominant mode of communication. Text messages and twitter are far more dominant, and I doubt futurists of the 80s or 90s would have predicted that.)

  31. #31 Stacey J. Miller
    October 28, 2009

    This issue has been bugging me ever since I realized the extent to which keyboarding compromised my handwriting. I’ve typed type all day, every day, for many years, and it’s zapped the muscle memory that used to make me an ace note taker. Now, I can barely sign my name on a check. Furthermore, I’m convinced that, when I switched from DOS-based word processors to Windows, I had to “think” differently to keyboard than I did when keyboarding was new. In short, my brain has been going through a series of changes as it’s acclimated to the digital world, and not all of those changes have been welcome. What will ebooks do to my brain? What will the digital world do to language, grammar, research, communication, and learning? For example (and I point this out gently), I couldn’t help but notice that you typed the word “mediums” instead of “media.” I’ll bet that’s acceptable now, in certain circles…and the other circles are beginning to matter less every day. Soon they won’t matter at all. It’s a very different world out there now, and while I’m tickled by how easy and cool information gathering, entertainment, and networking have become, I’m sometimes intensely frightened by how drastically the whole digital world has reshaped our thinking.

  32. #32 Kathryn Martyn Smith M.NLP
    October 28, 2009

    Your first question, whether ebooks are less pleasing for the brain is easy to answer; no they are not. I find no desire to read the many ebooks I’ve downloaded yet can usually locate something I’ve already read by visual clues (color of cover, size of binding, and approximate location of the text itself–let’s see, it was about the first third, right page, bottom corner). Try that with an Ebook.

    It comes down to the appeal; if the brain isn’t interested, it’s not going to bother, much less retain information. Think Edward R. Tufte in The Visual Display of Quantitative Information

  33. #33 Daniel Ferguson
    November 1, 2009

    “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.”

    This statement implies that the sight of letters, or more specifically letter and word recognition is the most interesting part of the reading process. There are theorists and researchers, however, who view reading as a language process, whereby readers use their “linguistic pool” to make predictions of the text, and minimal visual information to confirm these predictions and sample more text (eye-movement research of reading shows that only about 60-70% of words in a text are fixated by proficient readers).

    Here’s an article on this view of reading and “memory prediction” view of intelligence, http://ericpaulson.org/yahoo_site_admin/assets/docs/strauss_goodman_paulson_2009.160205435.pdf. While I agree that there is a “gradient of fluency” needed in reading, there are much more interesting aspects of the reading process that should be explored in light of the neuroscience research you write so well about. This other view of reading speaks to prediction, selective attention, and confirmation/disconfirmation as fundamental to constructing meaning from text.

    I hope you find this of interest.

  34. #34 web design template
    January 12, 2010

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  35. #35 Timea T
    January 22, 2010

    While the existence of ventral and dorsal pathways in the reading process explains a lot, it feels incomplete when I try to apply it to my own process of reading a book or other physical form of text vs. text in a digital form.
    What about connections to memory pathways, spatial processing (where information is location on the page) or the tactile (haptic) information of holding a book and flipping its pages? Or the smell of musty old books, or the hot off the print smell of new books?
    At least some little part of the enjoyment of literature has to do with the particular print copy of the book, not just in the romantic sense but also in the neurophysiological sense.
    I still remember the particular copy of of Anna Karenina or Unbearable Lightness of Being that I read decades ago, but honestly, I’m only skimming through the e-books on my Sony Reader the same way as I look for the information content in the numerous pdf files that I have to read for work.

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