It’s not just about turning text to thoughts: how you read, and what you read it on, can literally change your brain.
This piece began in my quest to try and find an answer to the age-old debate: paperback or e-book?
(Well, maybe not that age-old, considering e-readers were only invented in 1997, but it might as well be for all that’s been said about it.)
I’m a paperback person myself, the kind that finds solace in a library with walls lined with rows upon rows of spines. There’s just something about the texture of yellowing paper in between my fingers, the knowledge that every crinkle and crease was put in by someone that read and loved the very book I am holding, that seems magical.
Also, the way books smell. Old books have a very distinct smell to new books, both beautiful, and yet completely different. I will never understand people who don’t like the smell of books…but, I digress.
To get back to the question — reading physically or digitally?
Maybe our first question should be: reading?
Have you ever seen a dog walk on two legs? In the circus, perhaps?
If you have, one thing that might have struck you is that, while they’re able to do it, dogs are actually quite bad at walking on two feet. That’s because its not a species-typical behaviour for them.
“Species-typical behaviour” is a science term. Specifically, an evolutionary-biologist and -psychologist term. They use it to talk about which actions come naturally to a particular species, and which don’t. They’re basically behaviours that people learn without prompting, or don’t need much help to get started on; behaviours that their body is designed to handle. (It’s more complicated, obviously, but this is the basic idea.)
Let’s go back to the dog example. Dogs don’t learn two-legged walking on their own: they need to be constantly motivated with food by their trainers. Their bodies aren’t meant for it either, which is why they’re as uncoordinated as they are.
But consider two-legged walking in humans. Babies learn how to walk within about a year — a year and a half at the most — and they do it without needing to be told to “Lift this leg now, and put it down, yes, sweetie, just like that” all the time. And of course, it goes without saying that our bodies are meant for it.
Species-typical in humans. Not species-typical in dogs.
Now take the same lens of species-typical behaviours, and turn it on the topic at hand: reading.
Does it come naturally to us? Not really, if my primary- and middle-school years are anything to go by.
Do we have the hardware to do it? Well…yes and no.
When we’re reading, we’re using the part of our brain that recognizes symbols. And that part is only one bit of a larger section: the one that helps distinguish objects from each other. It’s the part of the brain that tells you your t-shirt is still the same t-shirt when it’s on your body and when it’s folded up in your drawer, despite them being very different shapes and sizes in each case.
To understand language, you have to turn some of those functions off. If reading worked like the rest of that region does, you couldn’t tell the difference between a ‘b’ and a ‘d’ or a ‘p’ and a ‘q’. If you were a pre-schooler that couldn’t, then now you know why.
So right now, the question of which column reading falls under will have to stay unresolved.
But we do know this: to learn how to read, we had to construct brand new circuits in our brain that connected language, object-recognition, and memory, among other things.
Our brains’ reading circuits are already there when we’re born, but they’re a bit different from other brain pathways. They’re not like the circuit controlling speech, for instance.
For one, the reading circuit is fairly recent. Humans have only been ‘reading’ in the conventional sense for about 5000 years.
For another, while every child is born with the ability to read, the skill remains dormant until it can be helped into existence. Think of it as a seed that has been put into the soil but must be nurtured before it will grow into a plant.
Importantly, the particulars of how the nurturing takes place affects what the final plant looks like. If a child is learning to read Chinese, her reading circuits will have a strong visual element, because the language has so many different characters. If she’s learning Urdu, or even cursive English handwriting, she’ll learn to visualize the strokes taken while the text was being written.
Even after they’re created, these circuits aren’t set in stone. They can change as your reading habits do. If, for example, the same child moved to the USA when she was older and lost touch with her first language, she’d gradually lose some of the imagery features of her neural pathways.
And, if she’s learning to read in today’s fast-paced environment, she’ll have a strong ability to take in a lot of text at once, but her overall understanding won’t be quite as deep.
Because reading is rooted in recognizing text like we recognize objects, over time, we stop recognizing just letters and start recognizing words — or more importantly, their shape. This tendency also generalizes to recognizing paragraphs of text, in that we form a sort of mental map of what we read.
When you’re reading a book, it’s easy to place yourself in relation to landmarks. Even if you don’t remember the exact page number, you’ll probably remember that Hermione makes her first appearance (“Has anyone seen a toad? A boy named Neville’s lost one.”) on the top left-hand corner of the page somewhere in the second quarter of the book.
You have clear coordinates to anchor your map.
When you’re reading off a screen, you just don’t get those same tools for orienting yourself. It’s one long column of text that moves up and down, and that’s all.
This explains why people have more of a tendency to get lost — literally and figuratively — when they’re reading digitally. Not only is it harder to go back to a particular spot, you’re also not sure where you stand in relation to the text as a whole.
None of us is ever really one kind of reader. We do different things depending on the context.
I’m usually a word-for-word reader, and tend to remember odd quotes from the novels I devour. Sometimes, I’m a pause-and-think-er, especially when I’m reading non-fiction on a complicated topic that takes a little while to digest. Occasionally, I’m a skimmer, usually when doing schoolwork or trying to research like I did for this article. I almost never skip, unless it’s a beloved favourite that I can recite from memory (there are quite a few of these, actually, and full books too; not just Dr. Seuss classics).
And I can say, fairly confidently, that this is also largely true for most of my friends that inhale about a book a week.
Recent studies have shown, however, that skim reading seems to be becoming the new normal. Reading on a screen is physically harder on your eyes than reading a book is because of the light, and encourages you to try and finish up as quickly as possible, without really stopping to go into the deeper complexities and nuances.
And that’s okay: you can be any kind of reader you want.
But maybe it does become a problem when that’s what your reading circuits are being watered with day in and day out; when it’s the only kind of reader you can be because — like the girl with a strong image recognition component to her reading pathways because she first learned to read in Chinese — you end up with shallow analytic and inference components because you learned to read on a screen.
And here we return to the question we began with: paperback or e-reader?
The answer’s fairly clear to me, book-fanatic that I am, but I hope it’s clear to you that, no matter which way you look at it, a laptop is not the same as a book.
These reasons are hopefully more articulate than my inexplicable notion, that a thick book like Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens should feel heavier in my hand than Lying by Sam Harris: an experience I do not get with an e-reader.
Because honestly, how does anyone enjoy reading books when they all weigh the same?
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