Digital reading comprehension requires a tactile medium

March 26, 2012 § Leave a comment

Credit: Occoquan Paleotechnic

Hand axes ruled us for 1 million years. Then we spoke. Now computer screens daily refashion our world. But reading comprehension is best when your personal digital media device is a hands-on relationship.  

Our ancient ancestors made hand axes by cradling a stone in 1 hand and manipulating it with the other. The process required close involvement. It also required hand use. And so did fire making, sewing, etc. Such attention to detail relied on a specially evolved left-brain hemisphere. After 1 million years of hand-axe culture, we talked.

About 40 thousand years ago a part of the left-brain hemisphere began to recognize words well. And our new thinking system began just when the hand axe died out. Media theorist Marshal McLuhan stated: “Any innovation in technology modifies our relation to ourselves and to our bodies.” It’s possible a million-year-old relationship of hand axe manipulation flipped into complex speech. Comprehending words and comprehending tools both require a specialized left-brain hemisphere. And like tool  use, word-use may require hands.

Stimming is subconsciously using hands while using words while under stress. For example, people in awkward conversations fidget. Hair straightening, thumb twiddling, finger drumming, pencil tapping, doodling, spinning an object, and repetitive pulling on clothing can also be subconscious attempts to relieve word-stress through physical manipulation.

Reading long lines of text is like stimming because they both require words and even hands. Books get cradled, their pages felt, turned, and flipped. Newspapers get ruffled, folded, and held close. Even their smell can sooth. We get intimacy from using a medium we can firmly hold and study up close.

Credit: Sunshine music

Reading on a computer screen however is difficult because you don’t get a good enough tactile relationship: you can hold it but not well; you can’t easily flip pages, feel texture, or even smell it. Without hand involvement, mental stress from reading builds. We don’t like reading off mediums to which our bodies can’t form.

Accordingly, media theorist Marshal McLuhan stated:

“…the more frequently and fluently a medium is used, the more ‘transparent’ or ‘invisible’ to its users it tends to become…Indeed, it is typically when the medium acquires transparency that its potential to fulfill its primary function is greatest.”

Although a study found that reading comprehension with digital text is similar to reading comprehension with paper text, the study director declared:

“Almost all of the participants stated that they liked reading a printed book best,” and most importantly that reading print was more “comfortable.”

Since digital communication devices are hard to manipulate, words written for such media should be easy to comprehend because otherwise, no one will read much.



Wikepedia, Foxp2

Wikepedia, Origin of language

Marshal McLuhan


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