It’s no understatement that digital mediums have taken over every aspect of our lives. We check what our friends are doing on the glowing screens in our hands, read books on dedicated e-readers, and communicate with customers and clients primarily through email. Yet for all the benefits digital mediums have provided us, there has been a growing body of evidence over the past several years that the brain prefers analog mediums.
Studies have shown that taking notes by longhand will help you remember important meeting points better than tapping notes out on your laptop or smartphone. The reason for that could be that “writing stimulates an area of the brain called the RAS (reticular activating system), which filters and brings clarity to the fore the information we’re focusing on,” according to Maud Purcell, a psychotherapist and journaling expert. If that’s the case, and the analog pen really is mightier than the phone, it’s no wonder some of my colleagues have ditched smartphones for paper planners.
But it’s not just recording our thoughts on an analog medium that appears to be better for us. Absorbing information from analog mediums now appear to be better for memory retention, and thus, productivity. In a study conducted by Anne Mangen, PhD, a professor at the Reading Center at the University of Stavanger, Norway, the researcher gave participants the same 28-page mystery story to read either on an Amazon Kindle or in print format. After the participants read the story, they were asked a number of questions about the text.
“We found that those who had read the print pocketbook gave more correct responses to questions having to do with time, temporality, and chronology (e.g., when did something happen in the text? For how long did something last?) than those who had read on a Kindle,” Mangen says. “And when participants were asked to sort 14 events in the correct order, those who had read on paper were better at this than those who had read on the Kindle.”
While this event has yet to be fully investigated and understood by scientists, Mangen, who now chairs E-READ, a European research network of interdisciplinary scholars and scientists researching the effects and implications of digitization on reading, says one explanation for the benefit of reading analog books may come down to something called metacomprehension deficit. “Metacomprehension refers to how well we are ‘in touch with,’ literally speaking, our own comprehension while reading,” says Mangen. “For instance, how much time do you spend reading a text in order to understand it well enough to solve a task afterwards?”
One study revealed that people think they are better at comprehending information when they read it on a digital screen. This resulted in those readers reading the text much faster than those reading the text in paper format. Yet despite spending less time reading the text, the digital readers predicted they would perform better on a quiz about the text than the people who read the text on paper. Yet when the digital and paper groups were tested, the paper groups outperformed the digital groups on memory recall and comprehension of the text. They also were closer to their test result predictions than the digital group was.
You Don’t Need To Print Off Every Email You Get
Books are one thing, but does our brain absorb information better if we read from other physical mediums, like newspapers and magazines? Not necessarily.
“Length does indeed seem to be a central issue, and closely related to length are a number of other dimensions of a text, e.g., structure and layout. Is the content presented in such a way that it is required that you keep in mind several occurrences/text places at the same time?” says Mangen. In other words, she says, complexity and information density may play a role in the importance of the medium providing the text.
“It may be that for certain types of text or literary genres (for example, page turners), medium does not matter much, whereas for other genres (cognitively and emotionally complex novels, for instance), medium may make a difference to comprehension or to the reading experience. But this remains to be tested empirically.”
In other words, unless people are sending you novel-length emails (which they shouldn’t be), you don’t need to go rushing to the print button, as reading short snippets of information on a screen probably doesn’t hinder memory retention or comprehension.
Print And Digital Can Coexist Peacefully
With all things regarding the brain and human cognition, Mangen also stresses that it wouldn’t be correct to proclaim that information gleaned from print is always going to be just as good, if not better, for memory and comprehension than digital.
“It is not–and should not be–a question of either/or, but of using the most appropriate medium in a given situation, and for a given material/content and purpose of reading,” she says, and notes that a “good starting point is to keep in mind that all media/technologies (old as well as new) have distinct user interfaces, and that the user interface of paper in some circumstances and for some purposes may support key aspects of reading (retention of complex information) or of study (writing notes in the margins) better than digital devices do.”
But for other purposes of reading, for example, presentations with audiovisual material, Mangen concedes a digital device like a tablet is obviously far superior. “There is no one-format/medium-fits-all solution (not even with respect to emails), but it will depend on a number of factors pertaining to the content/text, the reader, the purpose of the reading, the situation, etc.,” she says.
Slow Down When You Read Digitally
If you can’t bear to give up digital books, you aren’t out of luck. As the study cited above mentions, like other digital readers, you probably think you are absorbing the information better than you actually are, and thus move through the book faster.
A simple solution to this is to simply slow down and take more time reading the material, and you might absorb the information just as well as those who naturally take longer to read a paper book.