Why Reading From Paper — Instead of Screens — Helps Us Remember Things Better
Last year, when libraries and bookstores were suddenly rendered inaccessible due to lockdown, an article on The Print stated: “[D]ear book snobs, your day of reckoning is here, thanks to a pandemic.”
However, studies suggest that there may be some merit to the “reading text from paper is better than reading off screens” theory after all. A meta-analysis of 33 studies from 2008 to 2018 found that those who read things on paper not only understood the material they were reading better, but also performed better on tests connected to the material — than those who read from screens. In fact, compared to screen-readers, they also demonstrated better metacognition, or a recognition of how well they understood the text.
People also tend to attach more importance to information presented in print. “If you are reading from paper, your mind thinks, ‘This is something important. I need to pay attention to it’,” says Virginia Clinton, a professor of education, health, and behavior at the University of North Dakota in the U.S.
Researchers noted that sensory inputs from reading a book — which include feeling its weight, touching its pages, and also, smelling them — can enable us to process the information contained in it better. And deeper processing can lead to better long-term memory than shallow processing — since it leads to better recall.
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Besides sensory cues, reading from paper also offers motor cues that can help the reader process information more effectively. “When holding a book, we receive reminders of how many pages we’ve read and how many remain. We can flip pages to reread text as needed,” Kerry Benson, a writer and neuroscience researcher, wrote.
Screens, on the other hand, can lead to “shallow information processing” — especially when one is reading under time constraints, according to a study published earlier this year. Unlike the multi-sensorimotor appeal of books, screens don’t always retain a reader’s attention too well, leading their mind to wander — impacting their processing abilities. In fact, the longer and more complex a text is, the more difficult it may be to comprehend it on a digital medium, experts say.
Reading from a book also creates a mental map — like the protagonist in a fiction proposing to their love interest at the bottom-left corner of a right-hand page towards the latter half of the book — which might enable readers to retain the information better because of the spatial memory involved, and also retrieve it with greater ease because they know exactly where to find that information.
“Turning the pages of a paper book is like leaving one footprint after another on the trail — there’s a rhythm to it and a visible record of how far one has traveled,” science writer Ferris Jabr wrote in Scientific American. “All these features not only make text in a paper book easily navigable, they also make it easier to form a coherent mental map of the text,” he explained.
In addition, some may experience greater logistical ease when it comes to reading physical books. “With a print book, it’s easier to go back and confirm information you may be unsure of without losing your place and having to scroll or click back on your mobile device or tablet,” an article on Mental Floss reads.
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Moreover, screens can also induce fatigue. The glare of a screen as well as its flickering can tax the brain more — leading people to feel more fatigued. In fact, research has shown that students often complain of strain on their eyes after reading digitally. Dealing with the strain can interfere with focus.
And, in general, screens can be distracting — the temptation to browse or multi-task is higher while reading off screens. “[W]ith a print book, there’s no chance of getting distracted by links or getting sucked down an internet rabbit hole of looking up the collective term for a group of ferrets,” Mental Floss’ article states.
However, for light, casual reading, screens may not be a terrible idea — especially when it doesn’t involve time constraints or a need to retain the information one is reading, researchers note.
Still, in this digital age, “[print reading] is kind of like meditation — focusing our attention on something still,” says Anne Mangen, a literacy professor at the University of Stavanger in Norway. “[I]t’s healthy for us as human beings to sit down with something that doesn’t move, ping, or call on our attention.”