Wednesday, July 24, 2013

E-reader Brain

I read an interesting article in the August 2013 issue of The Writer, Internet Brain by Hillary Casavant, about various studies involving brain activity when reading. Evidently the neurological effects of reading fiction offer some great stimulation for the brain, from invoking sensory responses to allowing us to empathize better with others. Reading, say the scientists, is a complex action that develops deep focus and gives our brains a boost.

Online reading did not fare so well by comparison. When we're on the Internet we are flooded by so much information that our minds have to skim instead of focus. We read and think in the shallow manner required by such multi-tasking, and while interesting, evidently to keep doing this for long periods of time is mentally exhausting.

I don't spend enough time online to get tired of it; one hour a day is my max -- that was about average for all Americans back in 2011, according to the article. One other statistic from the article rattled me a bit, and that was that at the time of the same survey Americans were watching five hours of television per day. Disclaimer: I don't turn on the television most days, and the few times per week that I do it's to check the Weather Channel for the Local on the 8's or any tropical storm report, so that's why it shocked me. I can't imagine sitting in front of a television watching the broadcasts for five hours every single day.

I think this is interesting from another perspective, too. I have noticed that I read faster -- pretty much in skimming fashion -- when I use the e-reader. When I settle down with a print book, I'm much slower to turn the pages. Using the e-reader is a lot like being on the Internet or watching television, plus I don't consider it a book; it's a device. A device to me is a tool, to be used for work, while a print book is a pleasure to be enjoyed.

While I appreciate whatever time and shelf space the e-reader saves me, it hasn't made the reading experience more enjoyable; I think it's the opposite. I started reading quite a bit on it at first, but after a month I began setting it aside and eventually went back to reading print books. Over the last six months I haven't used it except a couple of times to buy books that were released only in e-book form.

Ms. Casavant's piece makes me wonder if the dissatisfaction I've felt with reading books on the e-reader could be due to me skimming instead of reading them as focused as I would be on a print book. I thought I simply didn't like reading on the e-reader because of the lighted screen in my face, but maybe it's my brain automatically shifting into that online shallow/multi-tasking mode. So tomorrow I'm going to try to read a new book on the e-reader but do it deliberately slowly, in the same way I would a print book. Maybe if I focus on the words instead of how they're being delivered to my brain, I might get back my focus.

Your turn: have you noticed that you read differently when you use an e-reader versus print? Is it possible that you might be skimming more than deeply reading, or is there no noticeable difference for you? Let us know what you think in comments.


35 comments:

  1. I read even more with the e-reader, and at about the same pace/intensity as with a similar book. (As I've read some books in both formats, having re-read them, and read series with some in each format, I think I can make a reasonably accurate non-scientific judgement on that.)

    The biggest difference? I have far easier access to many more books, and I'm less likely to run out and thus be without, or leave it at home. Which ends up netting me more reading time, not less.

    One thing that affects it greatly - I absolutely must read in a low glare/brightness - white or gray on black, and the like. Otherwise, it tires my eyes quite easily. Which I switched from my ebook reader to a Nexus tablet, that was the first thing that got ensured - e-readers for every file type that I use regularly, in which variable typestyle & background were an easy-to-use must.

    Even your website, while it isn't quite as stark, I still find myself squinting to shut out some of the unreasonable brightness that emits from the screen. Hate that.

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    1. I share your vision problem, Shawna, and mine has the additional effect of sometimes triggering an occular migraine, which isn't painful but basically blinds me (thankfully it's temporary, and goes away after about twenty minutes.)

      I've experimented with a great many background colors over the years on PBW, and the current off-white color is the one the majority of my regular visitors prefer. If this is a regular problem for you with sites other than mine, you might check into a glare screen or adjusting the brightness controls on your computer monitor.

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  2. I DO read differently on my Kindle than I would with a print book. Faster. And maybe because it's more convenient, I'm more likely to set an e-reader aside if the real world intervenes.
    I guess I never thought about it, because I do the same thing with the writing. Straight from the keyboard is faster but with none of the depth or creativity I get when I write by hand.

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    1. I have yet to discover the real convenience of an e-reader, Raine. The screen is still unpleasant to look at for longing than twenty minutes at a time. I still fumble with the touch controls (even using a stylus now instead of my admittedly clumsy fingers.) And in order to have all my favorite books on the e-reader, I'd have to purchase them again. That would cost me a couple thousand dollars, I think, but it costs me nothing to go and get the print copy from my shelves. :)

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    2. Helen2:21 PM

      Is your e-reader an e-ink device? If it is a tablet type device that might be the problem possibly.

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  3. My e-reader definitely does not have a lighted screen but I do find myself reading a little bit differently. It takes me longer to read books and I do tend to skim a little bit more but I honestly think that is down to the books I am reading.
    I make free use of the free and public domain books Amazon has available and as a result I have books that I may not have chosen to purchase in physical form. For example, older, longer, and thicker books that I would probably skim or read slowly in either format.
    So, I think the e-reader has meant that I read a bigger variety of book. That can only be a good thing.

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    1. I haven't tried uploading many free books, Aoife -- that's a good suggestion, and it might help me get in a bit more practice with the e-reader.

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  4. When I used to read with a reader, I found myself either skimming or jumping ahead to see how the book would end. I have a trememdously short attention span when it comes to reading stuff on a screen, so lately, I've been doing more print and less e-books, which is strange since my publisher is e-books first and print second.

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    1. I have the same attention span problem, too, G.B., but in my case I think it's more rapid mental exhaustion from nerves. Most technology intimidates me because I'm clumsy with it and prone to screw up something, so I can't relax with it, and the tension tires me out. By comparison reading print books seems like a vacation.

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  5. I find myself reading at about the same pace. I enjoy my ereader, which is a plain e-ink nook, about the same also. Personally, I don't think that I would enjoy a tablet like the nook HD nearly as much...

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    1. I might invest in one of those, Heather (I'm assuming that's the gray-screened type). The lit/color screen does wear on my eyes a lot.

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  6. My experience is similar to Heather Lynne's. I read at the same pace and in the same manner as with print books, but I don't have the back-lit screen that the more recent tablet-ereader's have adopted. I think the back-lit screen defeats the purpose; you might as well read on a computer or laptop or traditional tablet.

    Maybe the difference is in your approach to the device? I always approached mine as a book. I even call it my book. Since you approach it as a device and not a book, you are experiencing it in the same way as a computer screen.

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    1. It's hard to think of an e-reader as a book (no covers, I have to go through three screens to just get to a book, etc.) but maybe I should try and adjust my attitude. I really do want to use it more often; especially when I'm on the road.

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  7. Ren Benton7:44 AM

    I skim on the ereader, I have zero retention of what I've read, I'm much more easily distracted from reading (absolutely no point taking it out in public), and I obsess unhealthily about formatting errors. It's not the enjoyable experience I'd like reading to be.

    I'm a margin scribbler with paper books. The note feature on my device is cumbersome, at best, and keeping a notebook at hand and copying the relevant text with my notes isn't any less so, but at least I can put that info where I want it for later reference.

    I probably finish more digital books that I'm inclined to give up on (just because it's THERE when I turn the device back on, whereas I can toss a bad paper book in the donate box and never have to look at it again), but that just means my book-seethe ratio is really, really high for ebooks.

    I will always vastly prefer paper books, but I'm compelled by the "So-and-so has a new book coming out, so entire backlist on sale for $2 apiece!" economics to maintain some digital involvement.

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    1. I'm never tempted by low prices on most e-books, Ren, but as an author I keep thinking of price from a royalty POV (occupational hazard, I suppose.)

      I love that you're a margin scribbler. I can never bring myself to write in books (Mom gets the credit for training me that way), but I love finding used books with writing in them. Sometimes the notes left by the previous owner are wonderful.

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  8. I do skim a bit more on the e-reader than in a book. I have two e-reader: a Kindle Fire (with the bright colored screen) and an older Sony e-ink reader. The Sony doesn't have wifi so I have to plug it to a computer to load it, which means I'm far less likely to pick it up. I don't think I skimmed as much when I was reading on it before getting the Fire. I think that on the Fire, I can do more so many more things (surf, write reviews, watch shows, Plants vs Zombies) that I don't have as much patience for reading a mediocre story as I do with a paper book. Sometimes I'm just so absorbed in the book, that I barely notice the device--that's when I know I've found something worth reading.

    We moved about 2 years ago, and after culling our book collection, we still moved over 100 boxes of books. Probably more, since I classified all the kids's books with the toys. And I'm also an avid user of the library, so by no means do I own every book that I read. We have around a dozen full-height bookshelves plus a handful of shorter ones, all bursting with books and we haven't actually unpacked everything from the move. Once you haul that kind of load around (paying movers for some of it, hefting the rest by hand and by car), then an e-reader looks like a darned good option. Even the kids now have tablets with e-reader apps installed for checking books out from the library.

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    1. I donated three thousand books to the regional library before the last time we moved, Kristi, and it really hurt to let the go. But it had to be done; we would have needed another house just for my personal library. That and keeping my library at a more manageable size has helped me be wiser with my choices (the rule is that if I want to add a new book to the home library, something that's already on my shelves has to go.)

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  9. Anonymous10:09 AM

    I really do skim a lot on my ereader.

    I too used it a lot at first and then put it aside. Now I try to use it a bit each week to justify what I spent on it. I use it for ebooks I borrow from our library's internet system... handy but still not the same as a printed book.

    Interesting report.
    Ron

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    1. I'll have to check and see if our library has an e-book lending system, Ron. Although I suspect being out here in the rural boonies means probably not.

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  10. Anonymous11:36 AM

    If I used a tablet I would read a lot less, the fingerprints and glare distract me and my eyes tend to lock into focus, if the backlight is too black my eyes ache or get tired. I use my ereader a lot but fear it may become obsolete! I kind of miss an old Palm trick where the text would scroll by itself...ereaders are so determined to act like books and features like that were dropped.

    It scares me that paper is such a durable medium and digital media really is very ephemeral. I don't worry about the zombie apocalypse, but I still think that of all the generations of the past hundred + years, ours will be the least remembered in the future. Maybe someday people will fix the problem.

    I don't like e books for things that have appendix that I want to refer to a lot, or many footnotes, or anything like poetry books or dictionaries that I want to browse in a nonlinear fashion.

    I really like being able to have a collection of works by one writer, to read them in order, to maybe have some critical works, to be able to move back and forth from one book to the other, without having to carry the physical volumes.

    I don't think I skim more but I do think I may form less of a relationship with the time, place and feel of the book in my hands. Some studies have associated that with memory.
    --liv

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    1. I thought I was the only person being driven crazy by all those fingerprints touching leaves on the e-reader screen, Liv. Thank you for making me feel slightly less OCD. :)

      I share your concerns about the lack of footprints the digital age might leave in the sands of time. I think there are so many wonderful voices on the internet, but what will happen to their work when they're gone? I can't imagine anyone browsing CDs in a used internet store.

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  11. I don't notice any difference in reading patterns between my Kindle Fire and a print book. I have my Kindle screen on sepia, which for me is a perfect background, much like reading an old book, and easy on the eyes. I also vary my reading time between the Kindle and print--the best of both worlds. The bottom line for me is not the tool, but the story...I'll take it any way I can.

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    1. There's a sepia option? That is so cool. I'm going to charge up my Nook tonight and see if that's available or even possible.

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  12. I have exactly the opposite observation, but I read ebooks on my phone. Being presented with quite small chunks of text at once slows down my reading, I tend to read more thoroughly. Like others here, I'm now addicted to having access to books right there in my pocket, all the time.

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    1. I bow to you, Hugh -- I have tried reading things from the internet from my daughter's phone, and unless she enlarges the print a couple dozen times, I simply can't make it out.

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  13. Marianne McA4:55 PM

    I don't have a lighted screen either: I don't think I could use an ereader that had one.

    I'm a rereader, and the biggest difference would be that reasonably often something would trigger a recollection of a scene in a book, and I'd go, find the book, perhaps just read the scene, maybe reread the whole thing: I can't do that with an ebook - I haven't really found a way to flick through one satisfactorily. (Maybe they need to go back to the old habit of descriptive chapter headings, so that you could see from the contents page where you wanted to be: "Chapter Twelve: wherein Poirot summons the suspects to the library.")

    But pretty much, I don't notice the difference. I've now several times turned the house upside down looking for a book I wanted to reread and eventually, rather sheepishly, realised I never had a paper copy - the books have been on my Sony or Kindle. (The Sony was my first ereader and feels beautiful to read from; the Kindle's not half as nice but is twice as efficient - function has won out over form.)

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    1. They have a bookmark feature on my Nook, Marianne, where you can virtually dog-ear pages you want to return to. I just haven't figured out how to use it yet. :(

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  14. I feel like I actually read more slowly on my e-reader, but not in a good, savoring the book kind of way. And I haven't enjoyed most of the books I've read on it as much as the print ones. It may be that I've chosen poorly which books to read, but there were a couple that I couldn't figure out why I didn't really enjoy them, and I really do think it came down to the experience of reading on a screen as opposed to paper. I do love my paper books - even after having to pack up 12 boxes of them. But I'm getting used to my Kindle, and I do appreciate the lit screen so I can read in bed without disturbing my husband. Still, I think I'll continue to prefer paper books.

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    1. I never thought about the lighted screen being good for reading in bed, Gypsy. Right now I use a little book light clipped to my paper book. Will have to try this -- thanks for mentioning it.

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  15. I read roughly the same. Reading can really be an addiction. When my TBR pile started getting low I'd get really antsy. Now with the e-reader I know I have more than 900 books at hand. Plus my library has a virtual catalog so even if mine doesn't have a book I can check and see if it's in the virtual catalog and if it is I can reserve it. Obviously I may have to wait awhile but it beats paying for it.

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    1. I thought I might end up with a huge virtual pile of e-books, Joyce, but I haven't been shopping via the device very often. The only thing I keep falling behind on is one magazine subscription I have on it, probably because I really don't like reading virtual versions of magazines.

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  16. I find myself skimming more than reading in depth. I have a Kindle which I use, but I really love print books. I love the smell of freshly printed books and at the same time, the smell of a used bookstore with that "old book" smell.

    Back in the olden days, we didn't have e-books. We had to walk 5 miles to the library, up hill both ways in the sleet and snow. :D

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    1. True story, Lisa -- one summer when I was a kid I walked six miles every day so I could go to the library (which was housed in a tiny little trailer in the middle of a condominium complex.) I got very tan, had killer muscles in my legs and read the entire fiction section.

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  17. I think libraries are more inviting than downloading ebooks. Do any of the avid ebook readers realize how little (if anything) a living author receives in royalties from an ebook purchase, not to mention a piratted ebook. Very sad. We should be supporting our authors, not taking advantage of them.

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  18. Helen2:19 PM

    I love reading on my ereader.I find there is no difference between print and e-book other than the fact that the second I finish first book in a new to me series I can use the reader to buy the next one rather than having to go to the bookstore where they may or may not have a copy of the book I want.

    E-
    In regards to how little authors get paid on e-books I think it depends on the publisher (or publishing vs self publishing) on a 2.99 book self-publishing authors get appx 70 percent royalties. I think that is actually quite a bit compared to what they would get from a traditionally printed mass market book.

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