Ebook, Audio, Or Paper Book? What's Best, According to Science

We take a look at the unique benefits of each way to consume a book.
Chris Young
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Last year, physical books still outsold ebooks. The reason? Meryl Halls, managing director of the Booksellers’ Association in the U.K., says it comes partly down to vanity.

"The book lover loves to have a record of what they’ve read, and it’s about signaling to the rest of the world," she told CNBC.

Maybe it's also down to the fact that your ebook collection can completely disappear if servers are taken down. Regardless of the reason behind why we do it, what is the best way to read a book, according to science?


Audiobooks, paper book, and ebooks

We live in an interactive age. In this viral video from 2011, called 'a magazine is an iPad that doesn't work', we see how new generations might one day view paper 'technology.' 

As reading becomes more and more accessible on screens and in audio form, what's really keeping us reading physical books? Is it the feel and smell of a book? Is it having a very obvious visual indicator of how far in we are? Here are a few reasons why we might be more inclined to read on paper.

Your paper brain and ebook brain are not the same

According to PRI neuroscientific research has revealed that human beings use different parts of their brains depending on whether they are reading off of a piece of paper or a screen. When we read from a screen we tend to shift towards "non-linear" reading. This is a practice whereby a person will skim over a text and skip over it looking for keywords.

“They call it a ‘bi-literate’ brain,” Manoush Zomorodi, managing editor and host of WNYC's New Tech City, told PRI.

“The problem is that many of us have adapted to reading online just too well. And if you don’t use the deep reading part of your brain, you lose the deep reading part of your brain.”

Deep reading happens when we want to "immerse ourselves in a novel or read a mortgage document,” Zoromodi says. “Dense text that we really want to understand requires deep reading, and on the internet we don’t do that.”

Ebook, Audio, Or Paper Book? What's Best, According to Science
Source: Myriams-Fotos/Pixabay

As Zoromodi points out, some researchers actually advise we set aside time for reading specifically on paper every day in order to train our bi-literate brains.

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Better reading retention on paper

This is corroborated by a study that suggests ebook-reading adversely affects retention. As per The Guardian a controlled study carried out in Norway had several people read a short story either on a Kindle or in a paperback book. When these people were quizzed, the ones who had read the paperback were more likely to remember the plot points in the correct order.

"When you read on paper you can sense with your fingers a pile of pages on the left growing, and shrinking on the right," the study's lead researcher, Anne Mangen, of Norway's Stavanger University, told The Guardian.

Ebook, Audio, Or Paper Book? What's Best, According to Science
Source: Comfreak/Pixabay

"You have the tactile sense of progress ... Perhaps this somehow aids the reader, providing more fixity and solidity to the reader's sense of unfolding and progress of the text, and hence the story."

Then, of course, there is the well-known fact that blue-lit screens inhibit our sleep patterns and that paper is a better option before we go to bed.

Stating a case for ebooks

Now, we haven't exactly been positive about ebooks up to this point, but they do have their advantages. The most obvious, of course, is the fact that they dispense with the need for carrying around huge tomes — this writer could have done with an ebook at University when the entire works of Shakespeare, in one volume, was on the curriculum.

But aside from that, did you know they are also a great benefit for the visually impaired? As CBS News points out, the range of text size and line spacing options in ebooks means that readers with poor eyesight as well as those with reading disorders can benefit greatly.

In fact, a 2013 study observed the reading comprehension and speed of 103 high school students with dyslexia. The study came to the conclusion that people with dyslexia read more efficiently when using the ebooks compared with reading on paper.

Ebook, Audio, Or Paper Book? What's Best, According to Science
Source: Pexels/Pixabay

The lead author of the study, Dr. Matthew H. Schneps, said: "What made the difference was the ability of the device to display lines of text that were extremely short (about two or three words per line), as well as its ability to space out the text. When these people read using the modified formatting, their reading instantly improved."

Language learners can also benefit greatly from interactive screens. By clicking a word within a text in a different language a reader can look up its meaning. So, in other words, the interactivity and multi-usability of ebook screens, which makes people subconsciously shift towards "non-linear" reading, is a blessing as well as a curse. 

Are audiobooks good for the brain?

And what of audiobooks? Don't think we've forgotten. Much like ebooks, audiobooks offer an alternative for people who struggle with reading on paper. However, you might be surprised to find that one study claims audiobooks are the most effective form of consuming a book when it comes to stimulating our imaginations.

The study, published in the Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior found that human brains are actually more likely to create meaningful imagery when listening to a story, rather than reading it. It supposedly allows more processing power for our brain's visual processes to kick in.

Perhaps this isn't surprising, as the oldest form of storytelling between human beings is, of course, verbal. Whatever way you decide to consume a book, it will fire up your imagination and help you dip into a new world. As for which one is best, you decide. The science is just there to point you towards what's best for you.

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