Sunday, 22 April 2012

Can the Human Brain and eBooks Get Along?

kindle on the brainOutside of the tactile feel and smell of books, one of the biggest mental barriers people have against picking up an e-Reader for the first time is the assumption that one’s brain simply doesn’t retain information attained via a screen as well as it does via the page. If you’re on the fence about getting an e-Reader yourself, or this issue comes up often when you try and sell your family and friends on the Kindle, there may finally be some science to back you up.
The first thing one has to understand is that reading is not a natural process for the human brain. Instead, it’s a technology that we’ve cobbled together because of our natural ability in the area of language, as well as our god-given visual acuity. While many skeptics of e-Reader technology insist that reading the printed page is as natural as breathing air, the fact of the matter is that humans have only really been reading in great numbers for the last 500 some-odd years since the printing press went into mainstream use. Whether consciously or not, we developed the technology to fit around the way our brains process information.
A French neurological study on the subject of the human brain and reading found that humans read best when the ventral visual system (the part of the brain responsible for building a representation of the world outside of the body), is stimulated by words displayed in a familiar format. If words are represented in an unfamiliar way, a different, slower pathway in the brain is activated that focuses on processing the information from each letter individually.
So what does that mean? It’s possible that, for certain people, the experience of reading on a computer screen is unfamiliar in the same way that seeing letters jumbled or rotated is unfamiliar. They’re forced to use that secondary ventral pathway to process the information they take in, which means that it not only takes longer for them to understand what they’re reading, but it can be more mentally taxing as well. Combine that with the very human predilection to be distracted by all the temptations of the Internet, and I think it’s easy to see why some people observe that their digital reading experiences aren’t quite up to the standard held by books.
That’s the rub. The very design of the e-Reader, the very intention of the e-Ink technology, is to replicate that paper experience as crisply as possible. There aren’t yet studies to support it, but for many people who grew up with the printed page, the clarity of e-Ink is enough to stimulate that primary ventral visual system, making reading as smooth as possible. And indeed, for younger folks already accustomed to reading on a screen, the e-Ink might not be necessary at all.
In my opinion, the biggest enemy of the eBook moving forward is companies like Apple, who are reportedly quite interested in getting into the e-Reader market. While I don’t doubt their ability to produce a quality product, Apple’s habit of trying to make do-it-all gadgets has me concerned that their version of an e-Reader is going to focus on all the bells and whistles instead of the literary experience. I fear that while I’m trying to read about how awesome Andrew Jackson was, it’ll be death by a million distractions, from Twitter updates, to instant messaging, to, heaven forbid, phone calls from Mom.
As long as e-Readers succeed at keeping the background noise to a minimum, there’s no reason eBooks can be just as immersive as the printed page. We’re likely never going to do away with books, for a variety of reasons, but it’s not because eBooks don’t work. It’s just a matter of whether we have the wherewithal to just sit down and pay attention.

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