Ebook Brain: The Neuroscience of Digital Reading

“Stop staring at that screen—it’ll rot your brain!”

If you, like me, grew up in a rapidly digitizing world, you probably spent a portion of your adolescence getting lectured for spending too much time sitting at a computer or looking at your phone. We’ve all heard the conventional wisdom that staring at screens all day is somehow bad for our brains: supposedly it destroys our attention spans, blunts our intelligence, and transforms us into technology-dependent zombies. But is there any truth to such grim speculations? Are screens really changing our brains?

These questions are especially relevant to the publishing industry, which has experienced a slew of major changes in the digital era—most notably, the rise of the ebook. Parents can no longer hound their kids to put down the device and pick up a book, because now the device may very well be the book. This leads us to a more specific, two-part question: what does research actually show about the neurological effects of digital reading, and what can publishers take away from these findings?

As it turns out, the research so far suggests that although the prevalence of screens has yet to “rot our brains” or turn us into zombies, this development has changed the way we read. Neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf has written extensively about how the reading brain is changing in the digital age. In a 2018 interview for The Verge, she explained that the literacy circuits in our brains have a high degree of plasticity, meaning our reading processes—the way our brains interact with written material—are constantly shaped by the kind of reading we do on a daily basis. In our modern world, this plasticity is both good and bad. On the one hand, our brains need to be adaptable enough to keep up with the times and sift through the vast amounts of information available to us through the internet. But at the same time, this rapid adaptation to screens seems to be weakening other reading skills and processes: namely, what Wolf refers to as “deep learning” and “cognitive patience.” She claims that digital reading teaches our brains to skim and that if we don’t balance this skimming with enough deep, focused reading—the kind we’re more inclined to do with printed texts—we begin to lose our ability to read critically and empathetically.

Research has also shown that digital reading changes the way we skim. A
2006 study found that when people skim digital content, rather than scanning down the middle of the page as they do with print materials, they move their eyes in an f-shaped pattern, reading the first couple of lines and then scanning down the left-hand side of the page until they reach the next header. This means content on the right-hand side of the page doesn’t get as much attention.

Aha, so screens are changing our brains! Does this mean readers and publishers should toss the ebooks and go back to a print-only world? Of course not—reversing these technological advances just wouldn’t be possible, and it doesn’t appear that reading on screens “damages” our brains, per se. Rather than preaching against ebooks, Wolf insists on the importance of a “bi-literate brain,” meaning one that is practiced in both quick skimming and slower, deeper reading.

When we look at the current book market, this makes sense. Publishers know that certain genres (like romance, for example) sell better as ebooks, while books that require more patient, critical reading sell better in print. What’s important is that publishers make informed decisions to ensure that both of these markets—both sides of the reading brain—are served well. Publishers can also use this research to improve ebook design: since we know the f-shaped skimming pattern leaves a lot of content unread, we can focus on creative ways to alter the formatting and draw the reader’s eye to different parts of the page. After all, change doesn’t flow in just one direction: in this ever-evolving digital era, reader and publisher have to learn and adapt together.