Will MRI’s help us determine if paper reading is better than electronic reading

July 30, 2010

Will MRIs help us determine if paper reading is better than electronic reading What is the best way to read a book – in paper form or electronic form? Do the different mediums work better for different types of readers or those with disabilities? These are just a few of the questions raised by the new technologies that allow people to read on computer screens, phone screens, tablet screens and ereader screens. 

Research is being done using Magnetic Resonance Imaging or MRIs.  The scans are looking at what part(s) of the brain light up when we read.  The studies have also explored the differences between reading by normal people and people with dyslexia or autism.  The findings have shown the differences between what parts of the brain are activated when poor readers and good readers read.

The research that has been conducted specifically targeting electronic reading has been more antidotal than scientific.  A small study (only 24 subjects) determined that reading electronically was ten percent slower than reading from paper.  Other studies have shown that reading and surfing the internet actually boosts brain function.

Dan Bloom, a self described “semi-retired gadfly”, journalist and public relations consultant who lives in Taiwan raised the question of which one is better, not from an academic or scientific background but out of curiosity.  He has watched the growth of electronics from the early days of computers to the current use of electronic reading for everything from newspapers and magazines to children’s books.  Following is an email discussion with him about why MRI studies are needed.

Question: You do not have a Ph.D, nor any academic background or
affiliation, and you are not connected with any research institution or e-reader manufacturer or book publisher, why are you so concerned about these issues and why you?

DAN:  So why I am doing this, calling for this research, with so much energy? I just want to know! I am concerned that reading on screens might be not be as good as reading on paper in terms of brain chemisty, and I want to know the truth, from the standpoint of neuroscience.   And if I am wrong about my hunch that paper reading is superior to screening, then I will adjust my thinking accordingly. I want to see the facts, presented by experts. Anecdotal evidence no longer cuts the cake. We need facts.


ME:  Dan, a Google search on brain scans of children and adults reading uncovered some interesting information.  The scans usually use an MRI while people are perfectly still and reading from a screen ahead of them.   I also found an article that implied that reading on computers/screens is used to improve peoples reading abilities.  There are also studies that show computer searches stimulate middle aged and older adults brains. (Studies are referenced above.)  Do any of these studies answer your question?

DAN:  Thing is, for my purposes, this does NOT answer the question that I have posed which is: Is reading on paper surface, same text, [superior/  inferior/ the same?] compared to reading the same text on a screen, in terms of brain chemistry and which region of the brain light up for themes of processing the info, retaining it and critically thinking about it.

BUT THE hunch i am going after is the comparison of  PAPER reading vs
1. processing the info in the brain, digesting it
2. retention of it, memory
3. analysis
so my theme is the COMPARISON, and nobody has done this research in
the entire world, I am sure….BUT THEY SHOULD soon. one UCLA scientist told me last week IT IS POSSIBLE TO DO THIS, but it is costly and expensive and his team is busy with other things, but he hopes to see the work done soon too.


ME: Using MRI’s is going to expensive.  How would the studies be financed?

DAN:  Yes, conducting MRI brain scan research on lab volunteers reading on paper compared to others reading on screens (Kindles or Nooks or iPhones or computer screens) will be expensive. But institutions like UCLA and Harvard and Princeton and Tufts and other major universities in Europe and Japan will be able to carry out this research over the next few years. Scholars like Anne Mangen in Norway, Maryanne Wolf at Tufts, Oliver Sacks at Columbia and Gary Small at UCLA are aware of these issues and will likely be at the forefront of the research. It might take 5 years, it might ten 10 years, but the studies and academic papers will come out.


ME:  What do you think the brain scans will show?

DAN:  I have no idea what the research will say. The MRI studies might show the reading on paper is superior to reading on screens, or they might say the opposite. Or they might say there is no real difference. But we need to find out with neuroscience, not just anecdotal evidence.

So far, there is not one academic paper published about MRI brain scan studies on this topic, but several top people in the field have told me that such research is imperative and that it will happen sooner or later.

Anne Mangen, at the University of Stavanger in Norway, has already
published a paper about some of this work, but she did not use MRI
scans as part of her research.  Still, one can  summarize the importance of Mangen’s research on the difference between screen and print reading this way:

“The process of reading on a screen involves so much physical
manipulation of the computer that it interferes with our ability to
focus on and appreciate what we are reading. Online text moves up and down the screen and lacks a physical dimension, robbing us of a sense of completeness. The visual happenings on a computer screen and our physical interaction with the device and its setup can be distracting. All of these things tax human cognition and concentration in a way that a book, newspaper or magazine does not.”

ME:  There is so much research on brain activity using PET scans why would MRIs be better than PET scans?

DAN:  Your question is a good one. I am only zeroing in on MRIs as a target method but using PET scans would also do the trick.  We need research by academics and neuroscientists worldwide on how the brain "does" reading– both on screens and on paper surfaces — to learn more about these phenomena, and both PET scans and MRI scans will be useful for the studies. Research scientists will know better which method fits their mode of research.

ME:  Even if there are differences shown between  reading a book and reading on an electronic device, does that really mean it is harmful or just that its different?

DAN: Good question. Let’s say that huge differences are seen between
reading a book on paper compared to reading the same book on a screen. Will it mean anything?  If the differences are huge, it will mean something, for sure.  If the differences are very slight, maybe it will not mean much. And if there are no differences, then we can all relax. And if it turns out that screening reading is superior to paper reading, then that’s good to know too. We need to ask neuroscientists to tell us what’s going on. However, as Gary Small at UCLA recently told a reporter for the Los Angeles Times: "People tend to ask whether this is good or bad," Small said. "My response is that the tech train is out of the station, and it’s impossible to stop.”

He was referring to an earlier note that online readers often demonstrate what he calls "continuous partial attention" as they click from one link to the next. The risk is that we become mindless ants following endless crumbs of digital data, Small indicated. But his final note that the tech train is already out of the station and cannot be stopped is telling.

 ME:  How likely is it that manufacturers who have heavily invested in ebook technology will pay any attention to the findings if they are negative?

DAN:  Very good question. It is highly likely that they will pay no attention to whatever findings come out. If the findings back the superiority of reading off screens, they will rejoice and help to publish the results. If the findings say that reading on paper and reading off screens is more or less the same, in terms of brain chemistry and reception, then they will also rejoice. But if the findings come back that paper reading is superior to screen reading, it won’t make a difference to the e-reader industry. As a friend of mine in the industry told me recently:

"Just as dire warnings about cancer and radiation from excessive cellphone use have more or less gone unheeded, the same thing will happen with the results of the MRI tests on paper reading versus screen reading. It’s too late to do anything about it. The reading devices are already out there in the marketplace and in the schools. I don’t think a few warnings will change a thing. It didn’t stop the cellphone industry. It won’t stop the e-reader makers. It’s a billion dollar industry, and it’s getting hotter every day."

ME:  It may actually turn out the paper reading is better for some and that screen reading is better for others.  Who knows?  Without the research you are proposing, we won’t know.

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