Guest Post: The Relationship Between Reading and the Brain

So! Here is something new!

Lindsey Wright, a writer for onlinecollegeclasses.com, approached me wanting to write a piece for Everead. I am so flattered! She proposed to discuss the psychology behind online book reading -- a pertinent issue these days. I have read a handful of books in electronic formats, though none on ereaders, and a certain something is different. If you own or have used an ereader, tell me about it in the comments. How does it compare to other forms of reading?

Without further ado, here is Lindsey.

The Relationship Between Reading and the Brain

Since the birth of the printing press, humans have become accustomed to reading printed material. However, with the explosion of the Internet and electronic publishing, more and more people are replacing print text with digital text. For example, students taking online classes are now getting their text books digitally, and there are even websites available that offer classic books such as Great Expectations by Charles Dickens to read for free via the Internet. However one must consider the implications of reading material through technology. For instance – how does the brain react to electronic text? A 2009 New York Times article titled, “Does the Brain Like E-Books?” stated "Initially any new information medium seems to degrade reading because it disturbs the balance between focal and peripheral attention.

Researchers will agree that the brain reacts to electronic text and printed text in many different ways. Alan Liu, head of the Transliteracies (a group researching online reading practices and technologies) states one's balance of focal and peripheral attention differs greatly when reading an electronic text and print text. When reading print text, one's attention is very focused on the page, paragraph, sentence, word, etc. In standard novels and nonfiction books, there is very little to distract the reader from the material. All print material is different however. With a newspaper, there will be photographs, multiple news stories, comics, and many times all on the same two pages of printed material. Readers will, nonetheless, be more focused on a standard book than a newspaper, and some may suffer from what Liu refers to as tunnel vision when reading a single page, or paragraph.

Although the balance between focal and peripheral attention in print material varies, in most cases electronic text presents an unhealthy balance resulting in the reader lacking a proper amount of focal attention and being overwhelmed by one's peripheral attention. When reading an e-book on an iPad or reading a blog online, the brain is not entirely focused on what it is reading. Whether the brain becomes sidetracked by the ads on the side of screen or feels an urge to switch tabs to check email, the reader struggles to focus on the text at hand. The best reading experience is considered one in which there is a balance of focal and peripheral attention, and many researchers believe reading a printed text many times results in an abundance of focal attention, whereas reading an electronic text results in an abundance of peripheral attention.

Maryanne Wolf, author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, believes that the effects of electronic reading are unknown. What researchers and scientists do know is how the brain takes in print material. According to Wolf, it takes the brain approximately 300 milliseconds to comprehend a word and the brain allocates an "additional 100 to 200 milliseconds to an even more sophisticated set of comprehension processes that allow us to connect the decoded words to inference, analogical reasoning, critical analysis, contextual knowledge, and finally, the apex of reading: our own thoughts that go beyond the text." Going beyond the text and entering our own understanding is what French novelist Marcel Proust referred to as the heart of reading. As a neurologist, Wolf's greatest concern with reading through an electronic means is that the "young brain will never have the time (in milliseconds or in hours or in years) to learn to go deeper into the text after the first decoding, but rather will be pulled by the medium to ever more distracting information."

Today, the iPad, Nook, and Kindle are household names. In recent years, e-readers have taken the publishing industry by storm. According to a recent Harris poll, one out of six Americans uses an e-reader, rather than reading books in print, while another one out of six Americans is likely to purchase an e-reader in the near future. E-books and electronic text are here to stay. The way we access text and comprehend language is evolving, and we can only hope that our brains can keep up.

Lindsey Wright is fascinated with the potential of emerging educational technologies, particularly the online school, to transform the landscape of learning. She writes about web-based learning, electronic and mobile learning, and the possible future of education.

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