why the brain prefers paperChances are you’re reading this on your computer, tablet, phone, or some other piece of technology. It’s likely that you do most of your reading digitally.

Newspapers are posting their editions online, books are being published as e-books, and blogs proliferate as far as the eye can see. This digitization of the text makes it easier to find information and transforms heavy tomes into light-weight electronic devices. For many, the Death of the Book cannot come soon enough.

Nonetheless, reading physical texts helps us to remember what we read better. When we open up an e-reader, we will have to spend much more effort to retain the same information compared to reading on paper. As Maia Szalavitz writes for Time:

“…different media have different strengths — and it may be that physical books are best when you want to study complex ideas and concepts that you wish to integrate deeply into your memory.”

So does the brain prefer paper? What is it about reading on paper that helps to retain information?

A Physical Book Acts As a Map

Humans were not born to read.

This is something we taught ourselves as a species several thousand years ago. Luckily, the human brain is flexible and has developed neural circuitry to read written texts.

When we come into contact with a physical book, magazine, or newspaper, our brains create a map. The terrain is marked by two domains: the right and left page. There are eight corners and two covers that contain this territory.

Like walking through the woods, we flip through the pages with our fingers. As we move, we can hear the pages turning and can see how far we’ve read. We can mark our progress on the journey by bending corners or using bookmarks.

But when we read a digital text, we lose this entire topography.

How Your Brain Comprehends E-Readers

There is no organized territory in the digital world. One virtual page appears and then disappears. We cannot see how far we have gone or feel how many pages we have read.

There is only imitated pagination:

  • Fake page numbers
  • Headings that copy what we’d find in a physical text
  • A pseudo-form of flipping the pages that occurs on a two-dimensional screen rather than in our three-dimensional reality

With the physical text, there is order, organization, and a way in which our sense of touch, smell, sight, and hearing all come together. Our brains can learn to move through this map.

But digital texts are chaotic and for all the tools they offer, they do not create a territory for our minds to trace. They leave us wandering in the wilderness struggling to find water.

And worst of all: the digital text is filled with distractions.

Distractions, Distractions, Distractions!

When you open up a hard copy of a book, there are no distractions. It is just you and the words before your eyes. Nothing is grabbing at your attention except the words themselves.

A digital alternative, however, contains a plethora of distractions., and these prohibit information retention. In other words, when we read something digitally, we are less likely to remember it.

While some e-readers do offer a virtual page-turning experience, many digital texts require scrolling from page to page. This demands a portion of our attention that distracts from the text, even when we don’t realize it. It drains our mental capacity to remember and makes us more liable to forget what we’ve read.

There are also many other distractions within the text:

  • Hyperlinks within the text
  • Advertisements
  • Newsfeeds
  • Tool bars

With all these distractions, we are likely to engage in frequent task switching. We may jump from Facebook to Twitter to email and then back to an article we had already started reading. But by the time we’ve made it back, we’ve already forgotten what we’ve read.

Electronic Copies Can Give Us Tunnel Vision

Without the hard copy, we can also develop tunnel vision. We see pages, passages, and phrases isolated on the screen, but the ability to flip through the text gives us no context.

Remembering what was read and how it connects to the decontextualized information in front of us becomes a daunting task. Thus, we focus only on what is read and do not connect it to what was read.

We forget what we read as we read.


Escaping the distractions of the digital text can be difficult. In this article, I’ve placed all sources at the bottom rather than including hyperlinks. This means that you can more easily read through the article without being distracted. Not all blogs, newspapers, or online content articles are this generous though.

To retain information when reading a digital text, a reader, you must look past the advertisements, hyperlinks, and other distractions. Only by focusing on the text itself can you ever hope to remember anything you’ve read.

If you want to truly retain the information, the best thing to do is to read from paper, and not from screens.

Are You Interested In Learning On and Offline?

Take a look at the courses offered at Stratford Career Institute. With classes ranging from bookkeeping to small engine repair, we know that there will be a class for you.

Further Reading/Sources Used:

Grate, Rachel. “Science Has Great News for People Who Read Actual Books.” Arts.Mic 22 September 2014.

Jabr, Ferris. “The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper versus Screens.” Scientific America 11 April 2013.

Liu, Alan, et al. “Does the Brain Like E-Books?” The New York Times 14 October 2009.


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