Print Books vs. Digital Books & the Reading Brain

For a variety of reasons, for the past few days I’ve been thinking even more than I usually do about the differences between print books and digital books, and how our brain processes them. There are differences in how we read in different media, and it’s important for us to understand them. If our brain interacts with different formats differently, it means that different formats will best serve different purposes.

It’s our job as librarians to fulfill our patrons’ information needs as best we can. Selecting the best format for the information is increasingly important.

This is my latest attempt to summarize my understanding of how and why print and digital differ.

Most of the articles that I’ve encountered which discuss print vs. digital books and how our brain processes these formats mentions the idea of spatial mapping and the sense of weight that a print book offers (see this one, this one, and this one, for examples). We remember where certain pieces of content are in a print book based on physical layout—on a left-hand page, near the top, about a quarter of the way through. The weight of a print book shifts as we read through it—at first most of the weight is on the right hand and gradually shifts over to the left hand as more pages are turned. This gives us a visceral sense of our progress.

Digital books have no equivalent sense of space or sense of weight. It’s difficult to even define what a page is in a digital book because the content displayed on each page can change depending on the reader’s chosen font, font size, and screen orientation. The content shifts, it has no fixed location within the book the way print on paper does.

Because of that, it’s easier for us to absorb more information more deeply, more naturally, when we read in print than when we read digitally.

But as far as our brain is concerned, I believe that the differences go deeper than that.

Consider all the various components of a print book: the pages, the printed words, the covers and spine, etc. Each one of these components can be separated from the rest and still exist. Each page is its own thing, independent of every other page. You can tear a page out of a print book and it will still be what it is. The paper of the pages has a texture that you can see and feel. Even the ink embedded on the paper—it might not be separable from the page, but it’s self-evidently made of different stuff than the paper it’s on. So even the individual letters possess their own independent reality-as-physical-objects.

Considered as an object, a print book possesses a tremendous depth of reality. Every piece of a book exists in-and-of-itself—physically, viscerally, tactilely. If we could quantifiably measure the extent of the objective reality of a print book, we would find (to borrow the famous quote) “that it’s turtles all the way down.”

Now consider the digital book-as-object. Strictly speaking, a digital book can’t exist as an object in-and-of itself. The only physically real object is the e-reader on which the digital book is displayed. An e-reader is a screen in a case. The screen emits light. And that’s it. Nothing else about a digital book can be understood to exist as an object. The screen is smooth glass (or smooth plastic) with no texture—nothing to stimulate the nerve endings in your fingers. None of the pages can be separated from the screen. All of the pages are displayed on the same screen, too, so they are, objectively and to some extent, the same page—it’s perhaps most accurate to understand the screen of an e-reader as a single page with content that changes on command. The displayed page is light emitted from the screen. The words on the displayed page are light emitted from the screen. The page and the words on it are made of the same stuff. Etc.

Digital books possess far less weight of objective visceral reality than print.

To put it more succinctly:

  • The objective reality of a print book is already there to apprehend on all levels. A print book tells us what kind of thing it is.
  • The objective reality of a digital book has to be imagined, to a great extent. We have to figure out what kind of thing it is.

The two statements above don’t necessarily refer to any conscious awareness. Whenever we see, hear, smell, touch, or taste something, there are all kinds of neurological processes that take place in an imperceptible amount of time before we become conscious of the fact that we’re seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, or tasting a thing. It’s like our brain prescreens information for itself and it does a good portion of the work to understand what it’s perceiving before it demands any of our conscious awareness. It’s in these preconscious processes that print books tell us what kind of thing they are in ways that digital books don’t. And these preconscious processes set the stage for conscious awareness.

Neurologically, this means that we process print and digital formats differently. (Has there ever been a more self-evident statement? Our brain processes different things differently.) We’re wired through millennia of evolution to pay attention to the world around us through our physical senses above all else. The more physical reality an object carries—the more viscerally real it is, the more of our senses it stimulates, and the deeper it stimulates them—the more powerfully it will occupy our minds, the more we’re compelled to pay attention to it.

Because digital books don’t possess the same depth and detail of physical reality that print books do, they engage our minds less. Again, this isn’t anything to do with conscious awareness or any purposeful choice to pay attention. Rather, it’s how our brain is wired for preconscious and unconscious apprehension of the world around us. The shallower physical reality of digital books means that our pre- and unconscious brain can’t fully know what kind of thing it is from the sensorial cues alone. Our brain has to engage parts of itself in a process of figuring out what kind of thing it is as we read it.

It doesn’t surprise me at all that many people find themselves more likely to get distracted while reading digital books. It’s no surprise that we find it much more difficult to engage in deep, slow reading—to transition into a flow state while reading—when we read digital books.

Or, to put it another way:

Digital books present us with a depth of meaningful content that’s at odds with the shallowness of the physical reality of the object that presents it. There’s a contradiction between these two aspects.

When we read digital books, we’re physical beings living in a physical world and engaging with a largely non-physical object. That’s not something we’re naturally wired to do. It confuses certain parts of our brain.

We’re not naturally wired to read, either, as several articles I’ve read on this subject point out. But at least print books are physical objects that we, as physical worldly beings, can physically interact with according the basic evolutionary wiring of our brain. They’re objects which possess a depth of physical reality that makes it easy for our brain to accept the depth of meaningful content that they contain.

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