Paper Vs. Plasma: How the Digital Reading Shift is Impacting Your Brain

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Are you a paper or a plasma type of person?
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Are you a paper or a plasma type of person? What do you read—a bound book with the smell of glue and ink, or a glassy electronic display with sharp colors and a battery status at the top of the screen?

As it turns out, our brains process digital reading very differently.

Manoush Zomorodi, managing editor and host of WNYC's New Tech City, explains how the shift from paper to digital has caused a gigantic change in the way we read.

“I talked with Mike Rosenwald, a reporter with the Washington Post, and he has done a lot of research on this,” says Zomorodi. “He found, like I did, that when he sat down to read a book his brain was jumping around on the page. He was skimming and he couldn’t just settle down. He was treating a book like he was treating his Twitter feed.”

Digital technology, Zomorodi says, has produced an ongoing fight within our brains. The more you read on screens, the more your mind shifts towards "non-linear" reading—a practice that involves things like skimming a screen or having our eyes dart around a web page. 

“Linear reading, which is something we humans have developed over years and years, is what we need to do when want to do deep reading—like immerse ourselves in a novel, or read a mortgage document,” she says. “Dense text that we really want to understand requires deep reading, and on the internet we don’t do that.”

Linear reading and digital distractions have caught the attention of academics like Maryanne Wolf, director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University.

“I don’t worry that we’ll become dumb because of the internet,” says Wolf. “But I worry we will not use our most preciously acquired deep reading processes because we’re just given too much stimulation. That’s, I think, the nub of the problem.”

Zomorodi explains that neuroscience has revealed that humans use different parts of the brain when reading from a piece of paper or from a screen.

“They call it a ‘bi-literate’ brain,” she says. “The problem is that many of us have adapted to reading online just too well. And if you don’t use the deep reading part of your brain, you lose the deep reading part of your brain.”

To keep the deep reading aspect of the human brain alive and kicking, Zomorodi says that researchers like Wolf recommend setting some time aside each day to deep read with a paper medium.

Now that children are seemingly growing up with a digital screen in each hand, Wolf says that it’s important that teachers and parents make sure kids are taking some time away from the scattered reading that’s typical of a screen. She says adults need to ensure that children also practice deeper, slow reading that we associate with books on paper.

“I think the evidence someday will be able to show us that what we’re after is a discerning ‘bi-literate’ brain,” says Wolf. “That’s going to take some wisdom on our part.”