As a piece of hardware the so-called “E-Books” (electronic books) have become a hot item. Amazon Kindles and Sony eBooks are expected to find their way onto many a Christmas wish list in 2009. Popularity is, of course, only one measure of impact. E-Books may be relatively popular, but they’re not out-selling books. Not yet. E-Books are intended to provide an alternative way of reading, not only books but also periodicals. They’re designed specifically for that task, with the biggest advantage being the instant access to thousands of titles via an Internet connection and the ability to store many titles while on-the-go. In short, they’re special purpose computers.
Trouble is the current hardware has limitations…like no color. Black and white (or gray-scale) is fine for straight text, but something with illustrations say, a guide book to Rome or a cookbook? There are other limitations, some of which are a matter of preference, such as the size of the screen and the sharpness of the text. Then too, why special purpose computers? Why can’t they run a browser and let you surf the Internet?
Yes, yes. Despite the limitations E-Books can still put a book – a hot new novel for example – in your hands for that long plane ride between LAX and JFK. Some people swear by their E-Books, probably more than swear at them. People are using their E-Books with regularity just as they are – never mind the ‘promise of the future’ when all the limitations will disappear.
Ah, but does reading text from these devices do something to the brain? (Like watching TV?) Jumping on this prototype bandwagon, the New York Times recently published a lengthy article (a collection of expert opinions) called Does the Brain Like E-Books? The gist of the expert opinions about E-Books could be labeled ‘problematic.’ Some worried that E-Books provide too many distractions, like hypertext, (like the net?), others think regular books could be enhanced with computer chips, (oookay), and ‘we don’t have any studies’ was also popular. The different opinions are thought provoking, and we do need to think about E-Books, just as we should be thinking about how people receive information through their Web browsers. Are we getting our information in too many fragments? Are there, indeed, too many distractions? What impact does this kind of reading have on children? These and similar questions are, in fact, important. Like it or not, the future is digital – maybe not completely, pulp-borne information will be with us for a long time – but for all practical purposes the future is digital.
You probably don’t remember, but it’s guaranteed you didn’t learn how to read (well) overnight. In a sense, reading is one of the triumphs of humanity, something we have learned to do only in our very recent history. It’s such a powerful tool. We probably don’t know enough about how various modes of reading affect our brain. We do know that it’s not a simple process. This brings me to an excellent blog by Jonah Lehrer, which highlights what recent research is showing about our ability to read…
As the lab of Stanislas Dehaene has found, when people are reading “routinized, familiar passages” a part of the brain known as the visual word form area (VWFA, or the ventral pathway) is activated. This pathway processes letters and words in parallel, allowing us to read quickly and effortlessly. It’s the pathway that literate readers almost always rely upon.
But Dehaene and colleagues have also found a second reading pathway in the brain, which is activated when we’re reading prose that is “unfamiliar”. (The scientists trigger this effect in a variety of ways, such as rotating the letters, or using a hard to read font, or filling the prose with obscure words.) As expected, when the words were more degraded or unusual, subjects took longer to comprehend them. By studying this process in an fMRI machine, Dehaene could see why: reading text that was highly degraded or presented in an unusual fashion meant that we relied on a completely different neural route, known as the dorsal reading pathway. Although scientists had previously assumed that the dorsal route ceased to be active once we learned how to read, Deheane’s research demonstrates that even literate adults still rely, in some situations, on the same patterns of brain activity as a first-grader, carefully sounding out the syllables.
What does this have to do with E-Books? This research suggests that the act of reading observes a gradient of fluency. Familiar sentences printed in Helvetica activate the ventral route, while difficult prose filled with jargon and fancy words and printed in an illegible font require us to use the slow dorsal route. Here’s my rampant speculation (and it’s pure speculation because no one has brought a Kindle into a scanner): new reading formats (such as computer screens or E-Books) might initially require a bit more dorsal processing, as our visual cortex adjusts to the image. (One has to remember that printed books have been evolving to fit the peculiar sensory habits of the brain for hundreds of years – they’re a pretty perfect cultural product.) But then, after a few years, the technology is tweaked and our brain adjusts and the new reading format is read with the same ventral fluency as words on a page.
If you’re not familiar with one of the better written and consistently thoughtful science blogs, visit Jonah Lehrer’s Frontal Cortex.