- Learning in the digital age
- How does the brain handle ICTs?
On screen, on paper: how do you read?
Over the last 5,000 years we have significantly reformatted our brains (some would say “hacked”) so as to devote ourselves to an activity that far from natural: reading.
Using the part of our brain designed for recognising faces and objects, we have been able to train ourselves to recognise words, by dint of major efforts of concentration. And this activity has evolved a long way over the centuries. It was initially the preserve of an elite who read out loud while deciphering script where no gaps were left between words. With the introduction of punctuation marks around the 5th Century, reading became easier and we saw the arrival of what specialists call “deep reading”, which involves ignoring one’s environment to allow the words to resonate internally. This represented a genuine neurological revolution, enabling us to read and understand ever more complex concepts, or to immerse ourselves ever deeper in imaginary worlds and stories. That could have been the end of it, but over the last 30 years a new revolution has begun, with the arrival of digital technology and reading on screen. In contrast to paper, reading digitally, and particularly reading a web page, changes how we address and assimilate text.
The effort of deciphering
Those of us who spend the day in front of a monitor know how true it is: reading on screen is not restful, and requires more effort than reading on paper. Unlike a book, the screen is backlit, bombarding the eye with very high contrast. In addition to tiring our eyes, this contrast interferes with our foveal vision, which is what enables us to identify words as we read, thanks to a window four letters wide known as the “visual span”. Between the stronger contrast and often reduced inter-character spacing found on a web page, our visual span deteriorates. The result is that our attention is rarely focused on the same point as our vision, which leads to an increase in time taken to decipher the words. The average reader can decipher around a hundred words a minute on a screen, a figure which climbs to around 300 words on paper.
Various elements that are peculiar to digital reading, such as scrolling and hypertext links, can also create reading difficulties, according to Thierry Baccino, professor at the Université de Paris VIII and a specialist in the cognitive psychology of digital technologies. With a book, the word is printed on a page, so does not move. With scrolling, a word can one moment be at the top of the page, then a moment later, at the bottom. Since the Nineties, we’ve known that when reading we unconsciously remember the positions of important words. Nearly 20% of our visual fixation points are dedicated to this task, enabling us to refer back easily and re-read a section of text for better understanding. Of course, reading online interferes with this capacity. Hypertext links might provide extra information, but they also add a multitude of extra layers of reading, so that the process is no longer linear, and can lose a reader by diverting them away from their original aim. So is digital reading a write off? Not necessarily, if we are to believe Laurent Cohen of the French Institute of Health and Medical Research (INSERM)’s cognitive neuro-imaging unit, who points out that the differences between screen and paper reading are in fact fairly negligible. And if our brain does have to work harder to read on a screen, e-readers with electronic ink solve a good number of the issues raised above. But if digital reading does continue to raise so many questions, it’s because the environment in which we use it, the internet, is completely changing our relationship with information and how we process it.
Consult the original sources of this article
by Thierry Baccino
Il y a plus de 5 000 ans l’homme inventait l’écriture et, au cours des siècles, le support d’écriture (tablettes, volumen, codex ou livre imprimé) se révéla toujours très stable, dans le sens où ce support ne modifiait pas la forme des textes au cours de la lecture. Cette stabilité facilitait notamment la mise en place de stratégies de lecture ou d’inspection visuelle. Or, depuis une trentaine d’années, le texte a tendance à proliférer sur des supports extrêmement variés : e-books, tablettes, smartphones, ordinateurs… (...)
URL BBF 2011 - t.56,n°5