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When you need to go deep, don't let your devices be a distraction

Esther J. Cepeda on

CHICAGO -- There's nothing that digital addicts hate more than being told they need to pay closer attention to real life.

In a recent screed titled "It Would Be Great if Celebrities Could Stop Talking About the Joys of 'Unplugging,'" Slate blogger Heather Schwedel complained that comedian Aziz Ansari's declaration of independence from the internet in a GQ magazine interview amounts to a form of snobbery.

The smugness she imagines coming from those who choose to wean themselves off electronic devices is along the lines of: "Oh, you think you're better than me? You think you're better than looking at memes and double-tapping your friends' pictures of dessert?"

To be fair, Ansari has been writing and performing about the miscommunication, anxiety and brain drain that result from being tied to a phone at all hours. And his GQ interview was not braggy and it spurred several pro and con quit-the-internet think pieces because he made this important point about paper's capacity to improve focus: "I'm reading, like, three books right now. I'm putting something in my mind. It feels so much better than just reading the internet and not remembering anything."

It's not exactly a provocative stance.

Years of research have suggested various differences in reading online versus in print, many of which have come down on the side of paper for better comprehension when engaging in "close reading," i.e., detailed critical analysis of a text.

Indeed, a recent survey of 25 years of some 800 studies on the subject has concluded that at very early ages -- and when reading light material, superficially -- the format doesn't matter much.

But when it's necessary to go deeper than merely familiarizing yourself with the main points of a text, particularly one that is lengthy, paper may be better. This is because of the brain's ability to anchor information in the physical locations of concepts on a printed page that a hand manipulates as the eye processes the words.

This hand-eye connection is important -- many studies have credited the physical act of writing by hand with more thoroughly imprinting information in the mind by activating regions of the brain related to retention and goal achievement.

To this point, research published in the February 2017 issue of the Economics of Education Review found that students at the United States Military Academy who were prohibited from using internet-enabled devices for note-taking during class were likelier to score higher on their final exams than those free to use tablets and laptops.

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