The Virtues of Printing

When you are studying online and have long sections of text to read, it is always preferable to print it or send it to a kindle, which simulates the experience of typographic reading. (If you use a kindle, it is best to use one without advertisements or easy internet accessibility).

If possible take your print-out or your kindle to another part of the house where you are physically separated from the internet.

Printing online content before you read it may seem unnecessary, even a waste of time. However, it is actually extremely important. In an article written by Robin Phillips earlier this year for Touchstone Magazine, Phillips explained how “we come to online texts with a set of expectations different from those we bring to a book. We read books cover to cover, and even when we scan them, our reading retains a sequential quality. But research has shown that most people do not read a webpage from left to right and top to bottom. Instead, they tend to skip around, scanning for relevant information.”

In chapter seven of his book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains, Nicholas Carr has shared a body of clinical research that show that our brains process information differently depending on if we are reading off a computer screen or reading from a book (or print-out). He writes:

“A page of online text viewed through a computer screen may seem similar to a page of printed text. But scrolling or clicking through a Web document involves physical actions and sensory stimuli very different from those involved in holding and turning the pages of a book or a magazine [and this would also include pages that you have printed]. Research has shown that the cognitive act of reading draws not just on our sense of sight but also on our sense of touch. Its tactile as well as visual. ‘All reading,’ writes Anne Mangen, a Norwegian literary studies professor, is ‘multi-sensory.’ There’s ‘a crucial link’ between ‘ the sensory-motor experience of the materiality’ of a written work and ‘the cognitive processing of the text content.’ The shift from paper to screen doesn’t just change the way we navigate a piece of writing. It also influences the degree of attention we devote to it and the depth of our immersion in it.”

Gary Small and Gigi Vorgan have likewise reported on clinical experiments which show that we read the internet with a different part of the brain the part of the brain we use to read books. You can read about these experiments in chapter one of their book iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind.

This is separate to the question of clicking on hyperlinks. Of course, an added benefit of printing is that you can’t immediately follow every hyperlink. Even beyond this, however, the research is showing that when we read printed material it goes into a different part of the brain than when we read online material.

Leave a comment