Are you really reading this blog? Ever wonder whether the information you read on a digital screen sinks in as well as the information you read in a book, newspaper or other paper document? Lately, a lot of people are wondering the same thing.
Mainstream print and online news sources such as the Washington Post and Wired magazine have recently reported on research that suggests that digital media are changing the way we read – and not for the better.
Quantity vs. Quality
Everyone knows that the Internet revolutionized the distribution of information. Surfing the Web allows us to sift through staggering quantities of data in miniscule periods of time. One unintended consequence – so the theory goes – is that our brains have adjusted to this bombardment of information by learning to skim, jump and click from item to item in order to quickly identify what interests us and discard everything else.
It’s a useful strategy. Unless, of course, you need to comprehend, contextualize and remember whatever it is you’re looking at. If that’s the case, you’re going to want to try deep reading.
What Is Deep Reading?
The Stanford Center for Teaching and Learning defines deep reading as an approach that uses higher-order cognitive skills such as the ability to analyze, synthesize, solve problems and reflect on preexisting knowledge in order to understand the author's message. In other words, it’s the kind of old-fashioned, slow-cooked, nose-to-the-page reading we do when we want to actually learn something.
So why is it that that paper texts might be more conducive to deep reading than digital media? Research is ongoing, and electronic reading devices continue to evolve. But here’s what the experts are currently suggesting:
- Digital media encourage readers to use non-linear approaches to information gathering, such as skimming, jumping and clicking on hyperlinks. Some researchers warn that these habits may be carrying over into all reading, and even changing the underlying brain circuitry that makes deep reading possible.
- Traditional paper-text reading, on the other hand, encourages sustained focus and linear thinking.
- The act of scrolling down a screen causes an interruption to the brain’s ability to process information into short-term memory, a vital step in deep reading. Scrolling is a greater distraction than flipping a page because it forces the reader’s eye to search for a new starting point each time.
- Because paper texts are physical objects that readers can hold, weigh and flip through, they offer visual and tactile cues as to where critical information can be found.
- Understanding of the structure of a text is an important element of deep reading. And structural information is much easier to assess when the entire text is an object in the reader’s hand rather than series of screens and hyperlinks.
- It seems that the abuse that many of us inflict on our books may actually help us with the process of deep reading. The physical act of underlining passages, dog-earing pages and jotting down marginal notes appears to promote the absorption of the information contained on those pages.
- Because electronic media have changed the way people read, they have also changed the way people write. Digital texts are designed to be short, punchy, skimmable and sized for a visually appropriate screen. Complicated information, digressions and background material recedes from the reader’s attention as optional links.
Some researchers fear that without the use of complex paper-based texts, the human brain may entirely lose its ability to cope with sophisticated sentence structure and nuanced thought. It’s no wonder that – even today – many college students still prefer print.
So, do yourself a favor. Sit down with an old book. And read – more deeply!