Do Screens Make Us Stupider? Time for a Rethink of Reading

The Crux
By Julie Sedivy
Jun 17, 2014 8:30 PMNov 19, 2019 11:42 PM


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At the university where I teach, fewer and fewer new books are available from the library in their physical, printed form. And yet, the company that just published my textbook tells me that about 90 percent of students who buy my book choose to lug around the four-pound paper version rather than purchase the weightless e-book. The information is exactly the same, so why would students opt for the pricier and more cumbersome version? Is the library missing something important about the nature of printed versus electronic books? Some studies do show that information becomes more securely fixed in people’s minds when they read it from paper than when they read it from the screen (as summarized in this recent blog post). Findings like these may resonate with our subjective experience of reading, and yet still seem puzzling at an intellectual level. This is because we’re used to thinking about reading—or information processing more generally—as the metaphorical equivalent of consuming food. We talk about devouring novels, digesting a report, and absorbing information. If we’re ingesting the same material, whether it’s presented in print or electronically, how can the results be so different?

Chew Your Food

Within the prevailing food metaphor, the only sensible way to think about these different outcomes is that reading from paper leads to more efficient or complete digestion. An intuitive explanation may be that visual fatigue or the effort of navigating text onscreen interferes with the processing of information. Or, a popular subject of modern hand-wringing, perhaps we’ve picked up shallow mental habits while onscreen that prevent us from taking the time to properly chew on the information as we take it in. In both cases, the implication is that valuable informational nutrients that are “there” in the text end up being mentally excreted rather then absorbed. But in reality, the whole reading-as-digestion metaphor is deeply flawed. Cognitive research shows that the way we read varies widely in different settings, with text acting as a prompt for very different kinds of mental pursuits. While reading, it's possible, among other things, to generate strong visual images based on the text, to marshal arguments against the author's main point, to speculate about the motivations of characters, to connect the text to personal experiences, to form an opinion, or to notice the sensory and aesthetic qualities of the text, to name just a few. Not all of these take place every time you read, so there is not just one activity called "reading," done either poorly or well. A growing body of research shows that the same information can trigger very different thoughts depending on the cognitive goals that people have in mind. Readers can be instructed to create vivid imagery or to learn over time to make deeper inferences, both of which lead to better retention of the material they’ve read. And when readers are told to form an impression of people they’re reading about rather than to read for the purpose of memorizing the text, they organize the information from the text less haphazardly and are able to recall more of it. Cognitive goals can also be unintentionally triggered by cues that never even enter a reader’s awareness. So, just as people can be told to form an impression of a character they read about, they can also be prompted to unconsciously pursue the same goal. In one study, researchers asked people to unscramble sentences that contained words like evaluate, judgment, and personality before reading excerpts about a character. In another, these words were subliminally flashed at subjects before they took part in the reading task. In both of these studies, simply seeing words related to the goal of character assessment affected readers in much the same way as asking them explicitly to judge character.

Information Influx

In fact there are probably all sorts of subtle cues around us, influencing our cognitive goals moment by moment. In one experiment, subjects who subliminally saw the Apple logo performed better on a test of creativity than those who were exposed to IBM’s logo, possibly because Apple has been so successful at entwining its brand with the notion of creativity. Another study showed that when people read a product review in a hard-to-read font, they more carefully evaluated the merits of the arguments than when the same information was presented in easy-to-read font—suggesting that when information merely feels hard to process, we automatically bring out the heavy cognitive machinery. The emerging research on cognitive goals and their triggers offers an intriguing way to think about why reading the same text in different formats or even styles of presentation might engage the mind in such different ways. A hard-copy textbook—including its four-pound heft—may serve as a powerful cue that sets off cognitive activities that are very distinct from those that are involved in reading your Twitter feed or thumbing through a paperback romance novel. Through its lifelong associations with classrooms and the intellectual calisthenics that take place there, a physical tome may spark a self-analytical frame of mind, prompting you to take stock of your understanding, re-reading passages to fill in gaps, and constantly “testing” yourself on your mastery of the material. The research should also motivate publishers—especially of online text—to think deeply about how elements of presentation and design can serve as signals to nudge the reader into the mental activities that do justice to the text. For example, an online literary mag that looks like a page from Buzzfeed may leave readers with limp, unsatisfying experiences simply because it’s too hard to arouse the contemplative and sensory goals that lead to properly savoring its content. The magazine needs to signal that a different kind of reading is called for, perhaps by borrowing some of the elements that poets have long used to cue readers to pay close attention to the language of a poem: stripping away graphic distractions, formatting text sparsely and unconventionally, and surrounding it with generous swaths of empty space. Understanding how reading works means abandoning the idea that the presentation of a text is as inconsequential as whether a plate of food is served with a sprig of decorative parsley. In fact, the packaging of text likely contains rich implicit instructions for what we do with it.

Image by wowomnom / Shutterstock

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