Last Tuesday, after running errands, sitting in traffic, and finishing a normal work day I still had time to read for nearly 2 hours and 45 minutes. In just one day, I finished nearly half of Essentialism by Greg McKeown. With this kind of speed, my Amazon Wish List would be toast within weeks.
Now comes the confession: I wasn’t actually reading. I was listening. Essentialism was my first audiobook. It felt a bit like cheating, like audiobook listeners couldn’t really call themselves hardcore readers. Another problem? While I easily finished the book, I doubt I remember half of the information.
This led me to explore the science behind reading retention. It’s easy to blame technology for what appears to be our growing lack of retention. But perhaps we’ve been asking the wrong questions. Instead of asking on what we should be reading, we’re much better off solving the issue of retention by asking how we should be reading.
Flipping, scrolling, and skipping, oh my!
In 2013, scientists took 72 tenth graders and put them through a reading comprehension test with one catch: some read from paper and others from computer displays. As you probably guessed, the paper readers performed better. What you might not know is why reading on screens impairs our retention.
One reason is related to our spatial awareness of information. According to researchers, we don’t just read physical texts; we experience them. Similar to remembering a route you take with your car, you create a mental map of the material while reading. You can remember where bits of information are in relation to one another. With e-Readers, that connection between ideas is disrupted. It’s more difficult to create a mental image of how the pieces fit together.
There’s also the added issue of gauging progress. A scrollbar at the bottom or side of the screen doesn’t quite feel the same as holding a thick swath of pages in your hands. Why does that matter? The physical properties of a book helps your brain create a structure for the information you are reading. An e-Reader has no physical pages, therefore the structure your brain is able to create ends up being more loose and unstable. This leads to worse overall comprehension.
While there seems to be enough evidence to fully condemn e-readers at this point, another explanation for our decreased comprehension has begun to surface. This one points the blame on us.
How we read online
How we relate to and experience text online matters more than you might think. After all, not all experiments show decreased comprehension when reading from a screen. This has more to do with our mindset towards screens than the actual screen itself.
We’re pretty shoddy online readers because we associate reading on screens with shallow reads (emails, tweets, etc). This promotes a tendency to skim material as opposed to deep reading, where we digest every individual sentence. Depending on the device, there’s also the temptation to put the book down altogether and switch to something easier like reading Twitter feeds instead (Full admission: I do this regularly).
Research shows that audiobooks make it even more difficult to pay attention. In one study, researchers from the University of Waterloo separated individuals into three groups : those that read a passage out loud, those that read silently, and those that listened to the passage being read to them.
The individuals forced to listen to a story being read to them were, well, bored. Their minds wandered more than those reading the passage themselves (both out loud and silently). These listeners fared worse on comprehension tests. Presumably, this is because listening to someone else read aloud requires significantly less work on your part. It’s just not active enough to truly engage you.
Improve your reading (regardless of the tool)
While technology might be an awkward third wheel in our relationship with reading, it’s here to stay. The good news is that we can improve how our brains process information and retain more information even when reading on screens. According to Maryanne Wolf, a researcher on the topic of reading comprehension:
The same plasticity [ability of the brain to learn and adapt] that allows us to form a reading circuit to begin with, and short-circuit the development of deep reading if we allow it, also allows us to learn how to duplicate deep reading in a new environment.
If we become better online readers, we can increase our comprehension regardless of the reading medium. Here are some tips to become a deep reader (or listener) even online:
Consider reading aloud
The same Waterloo researchers that found out just how distracted we are while listening to audiobooks discovered that reading text aloud increases comprehension. When you are forced to read text aloud, you have a default mechanism to alert you when you stop paying close attention. You’ll stop reading words correctly.
One thing I’ve found that helps increase my retention with audiobooks is summarizing each chapter once it’s finished. When I hear the narrator switch to the next chapter, I press pause and vocally replay the important lessons from the last few minutes. If I can’t, it’s time to press rewind. Research confirms that summarizing information helps us to retain more of what we read since we’re forced identify the main points of the text and look past extraneous information.
Train your peripheral vision
With practice, you can naturally increase your reading speed up to a point (Find out how fast you read here). Tim Ferriss has designed a technique to push your reading speed even faster by using a tracker (a pen or other tool to follow along as you read) and specific drills designed to help you increase the amount of words you can comprehend that just touch your peripheral vision. That way, your eyes can focus more towards the center of the page.
While there isn’t a direct translation for audiobooks, most audio apps have the option to increase the narration speed beyond 1x. In my experience, my comprehension takes a dive when I go above 1.5x. If you feel like the pace is dawdling, consider bumping it up. Similar to learning to read faster, you’ll acclimate to the quicker pace with practice.
Make reading an active experience
Reading is normally a passive experience. We sit back, grab a cup of coffee, and curl up with a good book. Contrast that to how Ryan Holiday reads a book. For Holiday, reading is a very active experience:
If there is something I need to look up, I fold the top corner of the page and return to it later. I carry a pen with me and write down whatever thoughts/feelings/connections I may have with a passage. Don’t be afraid to tear the book up with tags and notations.
Mark-up the margins, highlight text, and scribble down memorable passages as you read or listen. Don’t be afraid to put down the text or press pause while you record a thought to come back to later. This way, you’re applying what you’re reading rather than letting the information wash over you and trying to recall it all later. The benefits here aren’t just anecdotal. Research confirms that this style of active reading actually helps improve comprehension.
After I finish a book, it usually sits on the bookshelf or in my Kindle library until I either move or loan it to someone else. Another tip from Ryan Holiday is to revisit books you’ve read. Bill Clinton, for example, reads Meditations by Marcus Aurelius every year. There’s a high probability that you’ll catch things the second time around that you missed. While you might finish fewer books over the course of a year, you’ll take more from the books you do finish as opposed to skimming the pages and heading on to the next one.
Put it to use
Writing down your thoughts is an easy way to increase comprehension and think critically about a subject. Take your reading to the next level by writing down the main points and what they mean to you. This is about applying what you have read and relating it back to you. If you can do this, you are far more likely to recall what you’ve read. You can do this publicly or in a private journal. Ronald Reagan used a similar system for collecting notes of stories and even jokes.
The point isn’t to regurgitate text like your favorite quotes from the book. Focus on putting the main points in your own language. Knowing you’ll need to summarize the book later further heightens your attention level while reading.
If the only time you have to read is while commuting to work, audiobooks sure beat out doing nothing. Similarly, an iPad is certainly slimmer and easier to carry than a physical copy of Atlas Shrugged. You’re not forced to choose the trade-off between ease of technology and knowledge retention. With the proper practice, you can have both.