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Ebooks vs Printed Books: Which Are Better for Your Brain, According to Science?

Book enthusiasts have long defended the benefits of the printed word over ebooks.Yet, the arguments are frequently centered on the look and feel of a book.

Ebooks vs Printed Books: Which Are Better for Your Brain, According to Science?

. In a world where much of our lives are conducted on a screen, the arguments for the benefits of a printed book over an ebook are increasingly focusing on the benefits the former have on our brain. If you’re on the fence when it comes to a preference over ebooks vs printed books, this article intends to look at the science behind the debate. With a printed book, you simply have the pages in front of you and nothing else. Whereas, with an ebook, there are multiple temptations at your fingertips. Your e-reader might allow you to look up definitions of words, browse other readers comments on the book, or have a browse option that allows you to search the internet. A study conducted at American University found that 92% of those surveyed found that they concentrated better when reading the printed word over an e-version. A printed book, therefore, encourages us to read more carefully and helps our brain to hold focus on the task in hand. Whether you use an ebook to read or download titles on your phone or tablet, research has shown that reading on a screen alters the way our brain views the text. Professor Ziming Liu, from San Jose State University, refers to ‘screen-based reading behavior’ which constitutes the tendency to browse and scan a text rather than practice in-depth and concentrated reading as we do with printed books.

The consequence of foregoing in-depth reading has been the focus of further studies. Maryanne Wolf, in her work on the evolution of the reading brain, has explored the impact reading digital text has on the cognitive functions we draw upon when reading. While she recognizes that we still know very little about the digital reading brain, she laments the possible loss of ‘deep reading’ which printed text facilitates. Another strong argument in the ebooks vs printed books debate is the capacity with which we absorb information from the printed word over its digital counterpart. Unsurprisingly, as printed books help to hold our attention and trigger more concentrated reading, we are better able to absorb and retain more information from them. A study conducted at Stavanger University in Norway gave 50 readers the same short story to read, with half the readers using a Kindle to read the story and half reading from a printed book. Participants were then tested on their ability to remember certain aspects of the story.

The results found that those that read the story on a Kindle found it significantly harder to reconstruct the plot when asked to. Printed books not only help us to draw on more cognitive resources, they draw on our emotional responses also. Similar to the point about keeping our attention, printed books are said to help the reader to be more emotionally absorbed in the book. Another study from the University of Stavanger, conducted by Anne Mangen, found that participants that read an upsetting story on paper reported higher levels of ‘empathy, transportation, immersion, and narrative coherence’ than those who read the same story on an iPad. So, if you really want to get lost in a story, go for the hard copy. Despite fears that digital books would remove the need for printed versions, these predictions have proved way off the mark. Sales of e-readers and ebooks have, in fact, slowed since reaching their peak in 2014 and printed books have enjoyed a resurgence. A lot of this has come down to the joy one feels when holding a book. In terms of the impact this has on our brain, proponents of the printed word suggest that a printed book serves to ignite multiple senses in a way that an ebook cannot.

The feel of a book, the way it smells, the way it looks, the satisfaction one feels as they see their progression through the pages are all elements that are unique to a paper book. Research has shown that the senses that are awakened by a paper book can, in fact, inspire individuals to do something new, make important life-decisions, reduce stress and increase happiness. Despite the many benefits on the brain of a printed book, there are, of course, benefits of ebooks and digital text. Ebooks have assisted with the democratization of information, in that they help to ensure books can be available in formats that make them accessible to those in a way that the printed word is not. However, theories that predicted that ebooks would cause the death of the paperback have proved unfounded as many are drawing on the scientifically proven benefits of reading from printed books.

The ebooks vs printed books debate is sure to continue, but with studies increasingly showing that printed books draw on more of our brain’s resources it may lead you to renew that library card and stock up on the paperbacks. R.

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