Paper stimulates the brain while tablets put your neurons asleep
Written by Gunter Pauli
January 4, 2023
Article of 2,300 words
As author of 25 books and 365 fables I have a keen interest in understanding how to best reach my audience. More, how to succeed that my readers remember what I wrote, even how could I influence their thoughts and actions. My first books were published in 1987. These were of course printed editions.
Though, all my books were created on computers thanks to the foresight of my mother who taught me how to use all ten fingers to rattle the content down at a rate of 60-80 words a minute. I enjoyed the arrival of the little MacIntosh in 1984 and a year later I discovered the marvels of desk top publishing (DTP) with this high quality Apple LaserWriter.
From Printing Books to Instant Publishing
The arrival of self-publishing – still on paper – with the capacity to write a book and put it into a print ready format in a matter of days was a revolution that inspired me to start a new business: instant publishing. In that same year 1985 I partnered with Roularta, the Belgian media group to create Roularta Books. We zeroed in on highly popular news items, like how to make use of the loopholes in the new tax law and details of the take over bid of Carlo de Benedetti, the Italian tycoon who tried to take control of the Societé Générale, the largest Belgian holding group.
The Financial Press Goes Digital
The ongoing digitization of the media revolutionized the press. As the Secretary General of UPEFE, the French acronym of the association of the financial and economic media in Europe, I had the privilege to be at the forefront of this digital transition with Les Echos and La Tribune (France), Actualidad Economic with Expansión (Spain), Handelsblatt and Wirtschaftswoche (Germany), Il Sole 24 Ore (Italy), Vida Economica (Portugal) and Dagens Industri (Sweden), just to name a few.
Innovations in Print Waste Management
However, while we were processing information digitally, we were still using print to communicate. The floppy disks with the same corporate information just did not appeal to the market as did the printed edition. This changed with the arrival of Kindle Books in 2007, and soon after the iPad and tablets. Since I had started to publish my fables, first in Colombia with the United Nations, then in Germany at the World Expo 2000 in Hanover, with the City of Curitiba in Brazil in 2001, and finally with the Chinese Government, there was an increasing interest to access my illustrated fables in digital format.
At first I resisted. As an avid reader of comic strips like TinTin, I could not imagine reading illustrated stories on a flat screen. I felt the need for tactile contact with paper and an eye contact with color print. How could I enjoy reading grey shades? More, it seemed that I would not grasp the content as easy with as much detail if the reading were made available on a light controlled screen.
The City of Curitiba offered in 2001 a unique platform to share the fables. After the decision by Casio Taniguchi, the then Mayor, the Teachers’ Union approved the introduction of my fables as a tool to bring nature, sustainability and science to all children. This required the training of 6,000 teachers and offered a chance to reach 120,000 children with 11 fables translated into Portuguese. We needed 1.4 million copies. A traditional printing job would have broken the City’s education budget.
How learning by reading print outperforms digital
Then, the Chinese Government invited me to embark on the greatest fable project ever. When after three years of testing 36 fables in a few hundred schools in Wuxi, the Chinese Society for the Promotion of Science and Technology with the support of the Ministry of Ecology and Environment decided that the fables should be made available to the 5,000 Green Schools with an average of 2,000 children per school. The digital option seemed to be the smart decision forward. The sheer volume of 10 million hard copies seemed to make this project too big in numbers. The Chinese Environmental Education and Communication unit of the Ministry took on the challenge to translate the fables, provide training to the teachers, organize model classes, print and distribute the copies.
The shift from reading in 2D to reading in 3D
The key question that the pedagogues asked was “why”? A broad series of debates followed and the arguments were very conclusive: a tablet mobilizes 1,000 times less neurons than the printed books.
“How come?” is the obvious follow-up question. The scientists, especially the experts in neuroscience were convincing in their arguments. When one reads on a tablet, one reads off a screen, with a controlled light. This makes the reading easier by looking at the text and the illustrations in just two dimensions. This clearly reduces the need to activate the brain. More, the infrared controls check permanently the light conditions and continuously adapt the brightness of the screen to maintain a comparable surface intensity further facilitating an easy read. Is this good?
The digital Guardian vs the printed Financial Times
While I had started to read more and more news on digital screens, I decided to test this Chinese experience based on the distribution of my fables with myself. The results were not surprising: whenever I read The Guardian on my phone, the content would be ephemeral. Whenever I read The Financial Times, especially the opinion pieces, on the distinctive salmon colored paper, the content and the arguments would linger with me for much longer.
While this personal experience is only an anecdote in the overall research on the impact of digital versus printed reading, the science behind the observations with millions of children led to the bold decision by the Chinese Government: children between the age of 3 to 15 will read Gunter’s Fables in all 795,000 Chinese schools in printed format only.
Policy Advise : Smart Kids need to read Printed Books
Children are born with an incredible innate capability to learn. Everyone has the right and the capacity to be intelligent. Today, all policy makers sense the urge to create a computer literate generation. Therefore, it is common to make children work with tablets and computers. However, this new understanding of the importance of reading print versus digital should urge policy makers to be less focused on digital, and secure more reading of print. Print activates and perhaps even produces neurons, maybe a thousand times more. This subsequently stimulates the brain and renders us more alert, perhaps even more joyful.
About the author
Gunter Pauli is an entrepreneur, and since over a decade chairman of Novamont, the European leader in bioplastics. He translates innovation in science and business into fables. In 2019, he was elected one of the ten best science teachers in China.
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