Do Screens Make Us Stupider? Time for a Rethink of Reading

By Julie Sedivy | June 17, 2014 11:30 am


At the university where I teach, fewer and fewer new books are available from the library in their physical, printed form. And yet, the company that just published my textbook tells me that about 90 percent of students who buy my book choose to lug around the four-pound paper version rather than purchase the weightless e-book.

The information is exactly the same, so why would students opt for the pricier and more cumbersome version? Is the library missing something important about the nature of printed versus electronic books?

Some studies do show that information becomes more securely fixed in people’s minds when they read it from paper than when they read it from the screen (as summarized in this recent blog post). Findings like these may resonate with our subjective experience of reading, and yet still seem puzzling at an intellectual level. This is because we’re used to thinking about reading—or information processing more generally—as the metaphorical equivalent of consuming food. We talk about devouring novels, digesting a report, and absorbing information. If we’re ingesting the same material, whether it’s presented in print or electronically, how can the results be so different?

Chew Your Food

Within the prevailing food metaphor, the only sensible way to think about these different outcomes is that reading from paper leads to more efficient or complete digestion. An intuitive explanation may be that visual fatigue or the effort of navigating text onscreen interferes with the processing of information. Or, a popular subject of modern hand-wringing, perhaps we’ve picked up shallow mental habits while onscreen that prevent us from taking the time to properly chew on the information as we take it in. In both cases, the implication is that valuable informational nutrients that are “there” in the text end up being mentally excreted rather then absorbed.

But in reality, the whole reading-as-digestion metaphor is deeply flawed. Cognitive research shows that the way we read varies widely in different settings, with text acting as a prompt for very different kinds of mental pursuits. While reading, it’s possible, among other things, to generate strong visual images based on the text, to marshal arguments against the author’s main point, to speculate about the motivations of characters, to connect the text to personal experiences, to form an opinion, or to notice the sensory and aesthetic qualities of the text, to name just a few. Not all of these take place every time you read, so there is not just one activity called “reading,” done either poorly or well.

A growing body of research shows that the same information can trigger very different thoughts depending on the cognitive goals that people have in mind. Readers can be instructed to create vivid imagery or to learn over time to make deeper inferences, both of which lead to better retention of the material they’ve read. And when readers are told to form an impression of people they’re reading about rather than to read for the purpose of memorizing the text, they organize the information from the text less haphazardly and are able to recall more of it.

Cognitive goals can also be unintentionally triggered by cues that never even enter a reader’s awareness. So, just as people can be told to form an impression of a character they read about, they can also be prompted to unconsciously pursue the same goal. In one study, researchers asked people to unscramble sentences that contained words like evaluate, judgment, and personality before reading excerpts about a character. In another, these words were subliminally flashed at subjects before they took part in the reading task. In both of these studies, simply seeing words related to the goal of character assessment affected readers in much the same way as asking them explicitly to judge character.

Information Influx

In fact there are probably all sorts of subtle cues around us, influencing our cognitive goals moment by moment. In one experiment, subjects who subliminally saw the Apple logo performed better on a test of creativity than those who were exposed to IBM’s logo, possibly because Apple has been so successful at entwining its brand with the notion of creativity. Another study showed that when people read a product review in a hard-to-read font, they more carefully evaluated the merits of the arguments than when the same information was presented in easy-to-read font—suggesting that when information merely feels hard to process, we automatically bring out the heavy cognitive machinery.

The emerging research on cognitive goals and their triggers offers an intriguing way to think about why reading the same text in different formats or even styles of presentation might engage the mind in such different ways. A hard-copy textbook—including its four-pound heft—may serve as a powerful cue that sets off cognitive activities that are very distinct from those that are involved in reading your Twitter feed or thumbing through a paperback romance novel. Through its lifelong associations with classrooms and the intellectual calisthenics that take place there, a physical tome may spark a self-analytical frame of mind, prompting you to take stock of your understanding, re-reading passages to fill in gaps, and constantly “testing” yourself on your mastery of the material.

The research should also motivate publishers—especially of online text—to think deeply about how elements of presentation and design can serve as signals to nudge the reader into the mental activities that do justice to the text. For example, an online literary mag that looks like a page from Buzzfeed may leave readers with limp, unsatisfying experiences simply because it’s too hard to arouse the contemplative and sensory goals that lead to properly savoring its content. The magazine needs to signal that a different kind of reading is called for, perhaps by borrowing some of the elements that poets have long used to cue readers to pay close attention to the language of a poem: stripping away graphic distractions, formatting text sparsely and unconventionally, and surrounding it with generous swaths of empty space.

Understanding how reading works means abandoning the idea that the presentation of a text is as inconsequential as whether a plate of food is served with a sprig of decorative parsley. In fact, the packaging of text likely contains rich implicit instructions for what we do with it.


Image by wowomnom / Shutterstock

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: Memory & learning
  • Uncle Al

    A 100-year old book is unremarkable. A 10-year old digital device is remarkable. What in your home can read a 1.44 MB floppy, much less an 8-inch floppy? Books are not about cognitive this and that. Books are about retained value and future accessibility. Beltway lobotomites can rewrite everything digital in a heartbeat, at will. Save your paper.

    The digital smartless disgorge a hundred pages of tripe/person-day, text and images. It will all be lost to history, to almost everybody’s gain. Cuneiform clay tablets vs. CDs and thumb drives – no brainer.

    • Carl White

      So, are you saying we shouldn’t bother printing up everything, but should still bear in mind what will have enough lasting value to deserve it?

      • Uncle Al

        I am saying, “stop whining.” Do what you want without subsidy or prohibition. Social advocacy’s singular historical output is ruin. Rome and the world were tremendously better off with paganism and slavery than with the following 1200+ years of Christianity.

        Good ideas propagate, bad ideas self-correct. The atrocity is cherishing empirical failure by feeding it what works. This is our current world, and is exponentially failing.

        • Thor H

          This nitwit isn’t even trying to make sense.

  • dougoftheabaci

    I wonder if the reason isn’t more simple. Physical is more expensive, yes, but digital isn’t cheap and you can at least attempt to resell the physical copy where an electric version is yours forever.

    • Don’t Even Try It!

      Nothing electronic lasts forever! I will bet that a hard copy book/document or whatever will out live an electronic data file storage system.

      • dougoftheabaci

        A book, unless properly preserved, won’t last more than a few hundred years. Without painstaking effort they won’t last past a thousand. A hard drive doesn’t decompose. A hard drive can be around for thousands of years.

        • Don’t Even Try It!

          Can you read a magnetic wire recorder from the 40’s or even a floppy from the 80’s? Technology changes rendering the recording media obs. Dead sea scrolls are still able to be read as well as other books and writings from centuries ago. Some media stored on tape and other electronic media won’t last 30 years unless in environmentally controlled storage facilities.

          • dougoftheabaci

            Some, not all. In general contemporary tech will actually last a long time. It’s a major problem for waste disposal.

            As for the Dead Sea Scrolls, you’re right, those aren’t falling apart and haven’t required hundreds of thousands of dollars and man hours to stabilize and translate. It’s not like whole swaths are unintelligible…

            In fact, translation becomes a very big problem the further into time we go. Shakespeare takes a bit of parsing but we can do that… But Beowulf? That’s English and almost unintelligible. Imagine 5,000 years! Or, you know, the Egyptians.

            Tech doesn’t have that problem because everything is based on Binary and code, unless it’s compressed or encrypted, is self-explaining. Even old tech is easy to reverse engineer.

            Sure, you run the same problem of the actual information being in a language people don’t understand, but at least all the information will actually be there, as opposed to paper.

  • Rachel Arnest

    In my personal experience, reading a hard copy book makes it much easier to find the information again. I remember approximately where in the book a particular piece of information was and can flip to it without too much difficulty. Electronic books however, I don’t get the same sense of location.

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    • LeslieOhhh

      I agree. If I am reading and forget a detail, I can find it in a book faster. I also find reading from a screen more taxing on my eyes. The back lit Kindles are easier than the computer screen.

    • Pam Gonzalez

      I agree about the sense of location. If I’m reading a Kindle, it really bothers me that I can only see one page at a time. Also I like to write notes in my books. You can’t do that with electronic reading.

    • SomeKernelsofTruth

      I can see that in some cases, but with my Kindle I do like that I can just search for a specific word or phrase I remember reading about, versus flipping page after page trying to find it in a physical book (if I didn’t happen to mark it in some way). Speaking of marks, I also like that I can go straight to my notes/highlights on my Kindle books, again without having to flip through all the notes I make. I do like a hard copy of a book too, though, and sometimes wish I could have both; like if I could buy a hard copy of a book and get an automatic copy of it for my Kindle. Ah, if only….!

  • Likhin

    I felt this difference long before. Reading a hardcopy of a book, makes deeper impression in our mind, than reading it on a computer screen. Also it is less effortful to read a hard copy of a book, and much more easy to absorb information. I think the difference come from several factors. First one is, we see all objects on a computer screen as virtual objects, rather than hard physical objects. I think this somehow affects our low level cognitive process. Next one is, computer screen is emitting light itself, but for paper, we are using an external light source to read the text. Next one is, orientation of the screen, most screens are placed vertically, but if its a printed paper, most often we will be keeping it horizontally, and I think it is a more relaxed position to read.

    • sharongnewborn

      Peyton . true that Jessica `s blurb is shocking, last
      monday I got a gorgeous Peugeot 205 GTi after having earned $6860 this past 4
      weeks an would you believe ten-k this past-month . with-out a doubt this is the
      easiest-job I’ve ever had . I actually started six months/ago and pretty much
      immediately started to bring in minimum $84… p/h . Read More Here F­i­s­c­a­l­p­o­s­t­.­C­O­M­

  • joy coulson

    After viewing Machu Picchu, I realize that either the area was built by extraterrestrials that got bored and left earth or that humans are getting progressively more stupid. I used to study by rewriting notes in cursive–it helped me remember–now cursive is being eliminated in favor of keyboarding. I used to throw away old textbooks until I began to notice that facts and history were being rewritten to often not reflect real truths of the eras.

    • George Holland

      It is really simple. You can underline important information in a hard copy. It is more difficult to do this on an electronic book. When studying for a quiz you review what you underlined.

  • Peter French

    There are usually too many distractions on a screen – just look at this one. It’s easier to concentrate on a page of printed words and to create your own visual images, which are much more likely to stay with you than someone else’s.

    • dougoftheabaci

      As a designer, that’s a choice not something intrinsic to the digital medium. Look at something like Instapaper, Reeder App… The design and function of a digital device is what you make of it.

      • Carl White

        THat may well be the case, but it’s a choice that’s so pervasively made that it would be easy to confuse it’s results as unavoidable. And I expect that as digital reading and studying become more pervasive designers will figure out how to make it easier… certainly that process has already started. you site examples, there are other examples above

        • dougoftheabaci

          Oh, almost certainly. Design as a discipline is only about 65 years old and meaningful portable computing itself is barely into it’s second decade. It’s going to get a lot better.

  • MarkCValdez

    Google is paying 80$ per hour! Work for few hours and have more time with

    friends & family! On tuesday I got a great new Land Rover Range Rover from

    having earned $4151 this last four weeks. Its the most-financialy rewarding I’ve

    had. It sounds unbelievable but you wont forgive yourself if you don’t check it…
    Here ­­­­­­­­­is ­­­­­­­­­I ­­­­­­­­­started,———-,, HuL­­­uJoB.­­­C­­­O­­­M



  • Joe Foster

    It isn’t books so much as it is correspondence – letters are saved and at times published as literature, John and Abigail Adams for instance, versus e-mail which, if saved at all, usually comes up in an investigation and is hardly ever worth keeping. How many people save all their e-mail for decades?

  • Christopher E. Stith

    All of this was quite interesting to read juxtaposing the idea of sparsely spaced, heavily serifed text clear of distractions against the article itself being densely kerned and spaced in a sans-serif font with banner ads around it.

  • yifei liu

    Like you mention in the article, reading books is one way of information processing. Different type of information maybe more reasonable to using different way. For instance, books like Political science or order type of book require some sort of deep reading maybe it’s better to read in paper version book. Other like web design or software instrument which probably would be better using digital version like the books publish on iBooks, since their may be exist some form of interactions.


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About Julie Sedivy

Julie Sedivy teaches at the University of Calgary. She is the author of Language in Mind: An Introduction to Psycholinguistics and the co-author of Sold on Language: How Advertisers Talk to You and What This Says About You.


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