We know that taking notes by hand actually helps you retain more information than using a laptop, and that actually picking up a pen also nudges your brain to think more actively about whatever you're writing. But what about reading? Does it matter whether you read books as pixels or in old-fashioned printed format?

Abstract vs. concrete

A growing body of science suggests that it does. Research out of Dartmouth has shown that whether you opt for a hard copy of a book or download it to your Kindle or iPad affects how you process what you read. Those who take in a book on an e-reader are more likely to focus on concrete details of what they read - the basics facts of the story or argument.

Sometimes that's all you're after when you read. In that case, go with the e-reader. However, if you're looking to think deeply about a book and make creative connections with your own life and other reading, then this research suggests an old-fashioned hard copy might be best.

Your memory prefers printed pages.

But that's not the only advantage of buying an actual paper book (sorry, trees). According to new Norwegian research written up recently by Fast Company's Michael Grothaus, reading a physical book is also likely to help you remember more of what you read, at least when it comes to the chronology of events in a text.

For the study, participants were given a mystery story to read. Half got the material in printed form, half on a Kindle. "Those who had read the print pocketbook gave more correct responses to questions having to do with time, temporality, and chronology (e.g., when did something happen in the text? For how long did something last?) than those who had read on a Kindle. And when participants were asked to sort 14 events in the correct order, those who had read on paper were better at this than those who had read on the Kindle," explains lead researcher Anne Mangen.  

Why did those with an actual book do better recalling the events they read about? Researchers aren't entirely sure, but it simply may be because we read printed material more slowly. Another "study revealed that people think they are better at comprehending information when they read it on a digital screen. This resulted in those readers reading the text much faster than those reading the text in paper format," reports Grothaus.

Scientists are still still very much in the early stages of digging into how the relatively new technology of e-readers affects our understanding of the material we consume on them, but in the meantime these studies should give dedicated readers some food for thought.

Sure it's super handy to be able to instantly order books to your e-reader and carry around a small library without straining your back, but there very well may be a price to be paid for that convenience. For those books you really want to dig into deeply, going old school and picking up a paper book may be best.

Published on: Oct 20, 2017