Scientific American: When It Comes to Reading, Over 200 Studies Find that Human Brains Prefer Paper to Screens

In the November 2013 issue of Scientific American, a lengthy article ran reviewing the science involving studies of reading paper-based vs. screen-based texts. The evidence overwhelmingly indicates the brain prefers reading paper-based texts.

Studies over the past 20 years indicate that readers often understand and remember text on paper better than on a screen. Screens may reduce comprehension by preventing people from intuitively navigating and mentally mapping long articles, books and other texts.

In general, the studies find that screens are more cognitively and physically taxing than paper. The reasons include that scrolling requires constant conscious effort, and screens associated with tablets, computers and laptops can strain the eyes, causing headaches as they shine light directly on the reader’s face.

Research suggests that even digital natives, the current population of children who have literally been playing with touch screens devices since early childhood, are more likely to recall the gist of a story when they read it on paper because the enhanced tablets, e-books and e-readers themselves are too distracting, with the myriad buttons and options with which a child can play. Paper’s greatest strength may be its simplicity.

In many studies, people understand and remember what they read on paper better than what they read on screens. Researchers think paper’s physicality explains this discrepancy.

  • When recalling a passage, people often picture it on the page. An printed piece’s many corners are landmarks that make these memories stronger.
  • A reader can quickly flip the pages of a paper text to compare sections or scan ahead.
  • Paper and ink reflect ambient light. Computers and tablets emit light, which may tire eyes and tax concentration.
  • The thickness of read and unread pages helps to form a coherent mental map of the text by providing a much firmer sense of place than a progress bar.