The science behind why humans prefer printed books

Printed book sales are rising and eBook sales are slowing. Recent studies have shown that reading comprehension and retention are better with “old-style” printed books. I believe that there are several reasons why people interact better with paper books.

When you hold and read a book, you not only absorb the words and meaning, but you also subconsciously remember the physical location of the words. Whether a paragraph is towards the beginning or end of the book, on the left or right facing page, or at the top or bottom of the page, you remember it. I still recall the physical location of certain passages of Moby Dick I read decades ago.

This physical orientation memory was an important aspect of human evolution and multiple sections of the brain are devoted to it (in the frontal, temporal, and parietal lobes). In order to learn our territory and to avoid getting lost in Paleolithic times, these visual and spatial clues were (and still are) necessary for our survival. Think about your commute to work. You no doubt rely more on landmarks than street names, and as you drive down the road you learn the location of new and recurrent hazards such as pot holes. I believe this combined verbal and spatial memorization is what makes reading a real printed book a better learning experience.

Looking at my old college textbooks, the highlighted words, creased spines, and folded page corners still reference the key aspects that are just as important now as they were then. My most used textbooks show wear from frequent use. Although buying a shiny new book is exciting for avid readers, one feature of real books is that they show age and imperfections with use. Well-used books have this human flawed quality that digital media cannot convey.

When you read a long printed book, you consciously or subconsciously track your progress by sensing the ratio of the pages read to the pages yet to be read. If the middle section is less interesting, you are more likely to ploy through by being encouraged that you are making physical progress through the book. This tactile feel of progress is an analog estimation and is more natural than a digital page number. If an eBook drags in the middle chapters, how often have you closed the file, never to open it again? Unless the subject is truly compelling, I find it harder to finish an entire eBook.

The automotive industry has learned that interior textures are a significant part of the car buying and car owning experience. People prefer contact with textured warm materials, not cold hard plastic and glass. Holding a book is a pleasant experience, whereas some people are getting wrist and neck strains from holding electronic devices towards their faces all day.

Humans are analog and prefer analog information. Although we relish our high definition televisions, it is only because we need high resolution to simulate analog reality. We crave analog input and want to see objects, not pixels. Reading a real book gives us the analog experience that our brains evolved to process.



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