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Dan Bloom is a freelance writer and occasional TeleRead contributor who’s been living in Taiwan for more than 15 years; he’s also an author and a climate activist. Over the weekend, Bloom sent me a link to his most recent piece for The China Post, and because it covers a fascinating and potentially important e-reading topic I haven’t read much about, I wanted to share it here.

The meat of Bloom’s article starts in the fourth paragraph, where he proposes the question of “whether reading on screens is the same experience, in terms of brain chemistry, as reading text on paper surfaces.” Here’s more from that same article:

“This is an important issue that the tech industry here in Taiwan and in global society as a whole has so far not faced up to. What I believe—and what leading experts in the field such as Anne Mangen in Norway and Maryanne Wolf at Tufts University also suggest—is that the fundamental differences between paper-reading and screen-reading might be so big as to light up different regions of ‘the reading brain,’ and that these differences need to be studied more, especially with (f)MRi and PET brain scan research.”

As far as his own opinion is concerned, Bloom has this to say about the subject:

“I have a hunch, based on a lifetime of reading on ‘paper’ and just 15 years of reading off ‘screens,’ that reading on paper surfaces is vastly superior in terms of brain chemistry for three important issues: the brain’s processing of the text being read, the brain’s retention of the information, and critical analysis of the information.”

And while Bloom certainly doesn’t claim to be a scientist or doctor of any sort himself, a number of professionals who’ve said essentially the same thing have popped up in the media over the past few years. The Tufts University child development professor Maryanne Wolf, for instance, covered the issue at length in her 2008 book, Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. (Which, appropriately enough, does not appear to be available as an e-book!)

As for myself: I can’t honestly say I’ve formed an opinion one way or the other just yet. I haven’t read Wolf’s book, nor have I read any studies on the issue that may have appeared in academic journals. What I can say, though, is that I will surely be seriously disappointed if any of these hypothetical theories turn out to be even somewhat accurate. I’m an anxious person by nature, and I can only imagine how guilty I’d feel reading an e-book that was also available in print, and knowing that my level of retention was suffering because of my preferred method of content delivery.

And yet, even if it is one day proven that paper-reading is brain-chemically superior to screen reading, I suspect the increased level of its superiority will be so small and slight as to be inconsequential. But then again, what do I know about the brain? (Answer: Not much.)

To explore the issue a bit further … 

  1. Start with this 2009 feature from the Christian Science Monitor …
  2. … which was mentioned in this TeleRead post by former editor Paul Biba. (Read this post’s comments, as well.)
  3. You’ll also want to read the Q&A interview Dan Bloom conducted three years ago with Dr. Anne Mangen, who at the time was a reading specialist at the National Centre for Reading Research and Education at Norway’s Stavanger University.
  4. From Txchnologist, check out this thoughtful Q&A interview with Dr. Mangen, which was published in December 2011.

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Update: Because I think it’s vitally important to give equal face time to both sides in a debate such as this one, I wanted to include a couple paragraphs I just noticed from Dan Bloom’s aforementioned 2009 interview with Dr. Anne Mangen. In the quotes that follow, Dr. Mangen seems to be suggesting that screen-reading and paper-reading are simply different experiences, as opposed to one method being better than the other. Personally, that’s an opinion I can get behind.

From the blog of author and expat Dan Bloom:

“When I mentioned to Dr Mangen that my concept behind using the word ‘screening’ to try to capture the fact that the experience of reading on a screen is fundamentally different from reading on paper—not worse or better, just different—she agreed, saying: ‘Yes, the experience of reading on a screen is different from reading on paper; although in what ways and to what extent must be specified in each instance, situation and purpose of reading.’

“But she added: ‘However, whether reading on a screen is better or worse than reading on paper depends on a range of variables—the reader’s prior experience with both formats, the purpose and situation of the reading act, the type and genre of text, the disposition of the reader, and other variables.’”

 
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