PDFs and Cognitive Drain

You might’ve heard about this: a recent study found that even having your smartphone within arm’s reach decreases concentration. The authors believe that the mechanism is the increasing cognitive load we experience when we have to avoid the temptation of looking at our phones; we’re constantly running a background operation called “Don’t Pick Up the Phone” and it sucks up our foreground processing capacity.

Personally, I found this explanation pretty compelling – I was just in the same room as my phone to grab something else, and before I knew what I was doing, I had punched in my phone’s unlock code and navigated to Facebook. At a certain level of phone addiction, the habit of checking requires energy and thought to… ah… check.

Here’s my not-especially-revolutionary thought for the day: if it takes me energy not to look at my phone, then it also takes me energy not to look at the Internet when I’m reading on the computer. I was just thinking how much more pleasant it is to read from a print-out than from a PDF, and I think, for me, this is the primary mechanism. When I’m reading a PDF on my PC, I’m always tempted to see whether I’ve received an email. I’m probably listening to Pandora, so I don’t recognize a lot of the music, and I want to know what it is. I can easily Google a concept that I don’t understand. And of course, if the reading is dull, Facebook is always there, with its flow of commentary and cat videos.

There have been plenty of studies comparing screen reading to book reading, but I think the focus on the physicality of a book is a little off-base. A good test would be to compare a computer with the Internet and auxiliary functions enabled to a computer with only a document to read. You could bring people in for this study and give them about 10 minutes to noodle around on the computer and discover the extent of its functionality. You’d either need each subject to be in the room by themselves, or to be in a room with people who had the same treatment – that way, people in the “Internet-enabled” group could see other people checking the news and Facebook, and they’d be more likely to feel comfortable doing that. Then, you could give people a document to read and way too much time in which to read it, since this mimics how students actually do their reading – they aren’t truly time-constrained. (Of course, if you had a large enough sample to run this on, you could have time-constrained groups too.) Then, you could send both groups a follow-up comprehension exam to complete the next day.

I think this would isolate the cognitive load effect of reading on a screen? Leave a comment if you think I’ve missed something.

Also, case in point, I was reading a PDF and became distracted and wrote this, so…

Also, also: this is just another instance of “the medium is the message.” I’ve found a hammer and everything is a nail.


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