Does the Kindle Make Good Brain-Food?

Do we learn differently from electronic paper than real books? The New York Times set out to understand the question by polling a group of experts. Does e-paper make it harder to focus? Harder to think and learn?

"Initially, any new information medium seems to degrade reading because it disturbs the balance between focal and peripheral attention," said Alan Liu, chairman of the English department at UC Santa Barbara. "This was true as early as the invention of writing, which Plato complained hollowed out focal memory."

Former Editor-in-Chief of the magazine Neuroscience Sandra Aamodt said that people have always learned slower when reading off electronic sources. "... [P]eople read more slowly on screen, by as much as 20-30 percent," she said. "Fifteen or 20 years ago, electronic reading also impaired comprehension compared to paper, but those differences have faded in recent studies." She also cites a study that showed computer-based workers get distracted, on average, every three minutes, taking an average of 23-minute detours before returning to a task. The same could be true of e-book readers as they become more fully featured. (Below, B&N's leaked e-book reader, courtesy of Gizmodo.)

 

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But maybe reading was hard to begin with, says Maryanne Wolf, a professor of child development at Tufts. "We humans were never born to read. We learn to do so by an extraordinarily ingenuous ability to rearrange our “original parts”," she says. Digital immersion could prove more natural for future generations raised on Kindles and e-paper, who have learned to learn on those media.

Some took issue with the all-or-nothing premise of the question. "So long as books are cheap, tough, easy to “read” from outside (What kind of book is this? How long is it? Is this the one I was reading last week? Let’s flip to the pictures), easy to mark up, rated for safe operation from beaches to polar wastes and — above all — beautiful, they will remain the best of all word-delivery vehicles," said David Gelernter, a computer science professor at Yale.

To read the rest of the interviews, click here.

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