Doing Your Mind

Research, comments and musings about active minds.

Embodied reading

Even people (such as myself) who wholeheartedly embrace the adoption of devices such as the iPad and Kindle tend to find something more satisfying, or just easier, about reading from paper. Reading blogs on the topic recently from the likes of Jonah Lehrer and David Dobbs I got to wondering what the difference might really be.

Lehrer points out that editting in particular just seems more comfortable, more straightforward, when working with a printout. He suggests that perhaps it has something to do with the vagaries of ink and paper. The less reliable nature of them somehow making things more engaging, becoming a little more engrossing precisely because it’s a little more challenging than the slick digital polish of a high definition monitor. He refers to some neuropsychological studies suggesting that different areas of the brain are involved in difficult and complex reading. I’m doubtful that the ease of screen reading has much to do with it, given that analysts seemed to agree that one of the big things preventing the up-take of reading on electronic devices until relatively recently was that their screens didn’t have high enough resolutions. Sure, issues of backlighting and so on are also part of the problem, but if the more-challenging=more-engaging hypothesis were to hold then something should have become more intriguing about electronic reading precisely because resolutions had been poor.

Dobbs suggests it has to do with potential distractions, and there’s something surely right about that. When we read text on paper we aren’t aware that a quick swipe of the fingers will check our mail for us, or that an encyclopaedia entry on that topic is just a button push or two away. Paper commits us to reading, and I am a firm believer in the idea that commitment is fundamental to the structure of our consciousness (it’s the firm place to stand from which we can get work done – I wrote a bit on this idea in my D.Phil. thesis).

But I wonder if another key aspect is also playing a role. In the online discussions on the topic people often mention the feel of the paper under their fingers, the smell of books and the comfort of sitting with the heft of a paperback in their hands. The experience of bodily interacting with our material is important to us, and I wonder if it isn’t important not just because it makes us feel comfortable, but because it’s part and parcel of the reading process itself.

In February I was at a meeting of the euCognition research network in which developmental psychologist Linda Smith gave a keynote. In it she described work she’d done with a number of colleagues in which they studied the development of visual attention in children (there’s a nice example of their work in this pdf). It won’t come as a surprise to anyone to hear that they found toddlers to be highly distractable. What is a little more interesting is that their work appears to indicate that children partially overcome their distractability by picking objects up – what is in their hands keeps their attention better. In a fairly literal sense, children pay attention with their hands (the object occupies more of their visual field, it is brought into their field of action so that they are doing more than just passively looking at it).

The researchers claim that this kind of interaction is crucial to the development of stable patterns of attention and learning how to focus on particular objects, and therefore learn about them. I wonder if we have any reason to suspect that we give up that habit. Sure, we become less dependent on actually holding things to keep our minds on them, but when a situation offers us opportunities to structure our cognitive activity, we do tend to take them. Holding a book in our hands offers us feedback on how far we are through the text, our thumbs provide anchors with which we can be aware of our progress and help to keep our place on a page. When editting with printout and red pen the nib of the pen literally acts as a pointer for us. Those vagaries of ink and paper (mostly very subtle if there at all) offer more cognitive ease than cognitive challenge, giving us something particular rather than generic to interact with.

The iPad and Kindle offer many of these quirks though, thumb-placement, movability in front of your eyes, and so on that make their reading experiences much more natural for our practised habits. I’ll miss books, and I’ll certainly always need full shelves (preferably on every wall) for a house to be a home, but now our electronic reading is as almost as bodily satisfying as page-reading, there’s only one way things are going to go.

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