The world within

| November 30, 2021

Most of us admire Shakespeare’s use of the language to evoke specific scene or attitude. In his time people went to the theatre not to watch a play but to listen to one. Many thespians performed outdoors, often on horse-drawn drays or raised platforms. Scenery was minimal, as was make-up. Men performed female roles and there was often a commentator to signal a change of location or time. The real play took place in the minds and memories of the audience.

For this reason, the language used was very important – the use of specific words, phrases, etc. In the same way, when radio became commonplace, radio plays were produced where the action and scenery took place entirely in the minds of the listeners. The language used had to evoke a particular set of circumstances. A lot of though went in to determining how a scene was portrayed.

Throughout those centuries imagination played a major role. When we read (or listen to) a book the same situation occurs – we picture the event in our mind’s eye based on how we read the episode and that is determined by our understanding of the words used.. When we sleep, we dream and this allows our imagination free rein. Imagination is a very important factor in the production of new ideas, concepts and inventions.

During the recent lock-down we have been confined to our homes. Here, we have had our imagination, a few people to discuss our ideas with and access to a variety of graphic design programs. This situation has produced a wide variety of animated films, jokes and ideas for people to do either on their own or with a few others – modelling, woodcarving, painting, cooking, etc.

This has also allowed the more adventurous to give their imaginations free rein. Many have put their ideas on the internet but I am sure many have either kept their ideas to themselves for later production or shared them with like minded workmates. With a bit of luck, these two years of covid will produce a plethora of suggestions and opinions which will, in turn trigger others to achieve what their own creative powers determine.

I feel it is unfortunate that so much information is now available in visual format via the media. A picture is worth a thousand words. However, it is now so easy to ‘photoshop’ any image that we can no longer believe what we see – even moving images like films of people speaking can be quite easily manipulated to give an incorrect interpretation. At the same time, our imaginations are being sidelined to a certain extent by ‘facts’ produced by the manipulators of public opinion.

Admittedly, our imaginations can produce many weird ideas and beliefs but with adequate social interaction, these can be contained. Many people’s ideas are now being manipulated by shadowy figures in the social media who, possibly themselves are being misinformed by others. When a critical number of adherents is reached, an idea takes off to be accepted by the majority who have neither the intelligence nor ability to check the details.

Unfortunately I have no logical response to this. Due to a technical problem I have had to read my New Scientist in paper format as opposed to downloading it and have found a significant difference in my ability to fully understand the contents, so have searched Mr Google for a better appreciation of the problem.

What types of technologies work better for which kinds of learning?

For instance, to understand how screens and books help (or hinder) different kinds of reading, we need to look at the cognitive differences between reading screens versus reading books. That is, how does each medium affect the way our minds learn or processes information?

Reading Screens vs. Reading Books

When it comes to reading, we can point to three differences between screen and print media: light, haptics, and distractions.


One difference between screens and books is the way our eyes interact with light. When we read screens, light comes through the screen, directly at our retinas. This is why media guru Marshall McLuhan referred to screens as “light through” media. Since it’s difficult for our eyes to stare at direct light for long periods of time, we tend to scan screens and not focus on them.

(In fact, if we stare at direct light from screens too much, we risk developing digital eye strain—a.k.a. computer vision syndrome. Quick side note: It’s possible to at least partly mitigate the glare of direct light using anti-reflective coating on eyeglasses, but our eyes will still tend to scan screens regardless whenever light shines directly at them.)

In contrast, when we read books, light reflects off the page before meeting our eyes. Hence, McLuhan called books “light on” media, as opposed to “light through” media like screens (McLuhan, 1962, p 105). Reflected light, unlike direct light, makes it easy for our eyes to stare at printed pages for lengthy durations. Simply put, it’s more comfortable for our eyes to focus on books, especially in comparison to screens.

Books (or “light on” media) reflect light off the page, as opposed to screens (or “light-through” media), which emit light directly at our eyes. This is one reason why books are better than screens for reading.

In sum, we tend to scan screens because they emit direct light. Conversely, it’s easier to focus on books because they reflect light. Consequently, books are better than screens for visual focus, while screens are better than books for visual scanning.


Another difference between screens and books has to do with the haptic experiences these media enable. By haptic, we mean the touching sensations that our arms, hands, and fingers feel while reaching out to grab an object.

Think about the haptic experience of reading a book. When we touch and flip through the pages, we’re using hand-eye coordination to feel the weight of what we’re seeing. This allows us to not just see the book but also feel if it’s big or small, thick or thin. Coordinating visual focus with haptic feeling has a unique cognitive effect. It puts our minds into an immersive state of concentration (Mangen, 2008).

Screens don’t replicate this haptic feeling, meaning they don’t help our minds enter a state of concentration. Screens entail a very different kind of haptic experience. They’re better suited for scrolling through content or zooming in and out of imagery, such as when you’re searching for a specific piece of information, like a keyword or graphic.

Interestingly, this difference has practical implications for how we remember what we read.  The haptic experience of reading books helps us concentrate, which facilitates memory retention and recall.  For instance, readers who read books—rather than screens—have an easier time remembering what they read (Jabr, April 2013; Jabr, November 2013).

So, when it comes to reading, books are better than screens for concentrating and recalling content from memory.  In contrast, screens are better than books for searching or sifting through information to find content quickly.


In addition to light and haptics, there’s at least one other difference between screens and books: the presence or absence of digital distractions.

Clearly, books don’t contain the kinds of build-in distractions screens may have, such as games or social media apps.  Not surprisingly, the more digital distractions there are, the easier it is to multitask, and the harder it is to focus and reflect on what you’re reading.  That’s because, unlike computers, human being cannot really multitask—we can only switch between tasks, which naturally breaks focus and puts the mind into a distracted state.

For example, studies show that most students who use laptops in the classroom end up spending considerable time multitasking, which distracts them from learning class material (Fried, 2006; Sana et al., 2013).  In short, when digital technology distracts students, they find it difficult to pay attention and reflect upon the subject matter.

Books Are Better Than Screens for Deep Reading

To conclude, due to light, haptics, and distractions, books tend to work better for the kinds of learning that require focusing, recalling, and reflecting (as opposed to scanning, searching, or multitasking).  That’s why books are better than screens for reading—particularly concentrated or deep reading (and not merely skimming).

Deep reading means slowly and deliberately perusing a text.  Unlike skimming, the goal of deep reading is to enhance reading comprehension and fathom depth of meaning (Wolf, 2018, p 92; Birkerts, 1994, p 146).  Literature teachers sometimes refer to this skill as “reading between the lines.”

Nevertheless, just because books are better than screens for deep reading, this doesn’t mean skimming screens has no place in education.