In today’s digital age, screens and computers have become ubiquitous in our daily lives, and they are often seen as the go-to tool for learning and education. However, many studies have demonstrated that working on paper rather than digital screens can improve learning, concentration and the retention of information.
Ricard Solé, a theoretical biologist and complex systems researcher, poses the questions: “How do you think this highly specialized lifestyle and exposure to technologies such as screens, which have reduced our ability to pay attention to complex subjects for a long time, will affect us? Can this be reflected in physical changes in our brain?”
Solé conducted a study that found that brains process information differently when reading from a physical book, where the information is presented in actual paper, compared to a screen. When reading a physical book, the brain is more actively engaged and better able to retain information. Solé believes that this is because reading a physical book requires the brain to process multiple senses, such as the feel of the paper, the sound of turning pages, and the sensation of holding the book, while screens only provide visual input.
His recent work with the Pompeu Fabra University as head of the Complex Systems Lab in the PRBB (Barcelona Biomedical Research Park) explores how brains work. This topic is explored in the exhibition he co-curated: Brains. The exhibition is a co-production between Fundación Telefónica, the Wellcome Collection in London and the Centre for Contemporary Culture in Barcelona.
The exhibition dedicates space to exploring how art, science and philosophy have represented the brain over the years. It looks at the anatomy of the brain and everything it creates, including consciousness, abstract thought, language, imagination, dreams and memory.
Ricard Solé proposes that “in the biosphere that is not human there are precursors of consciousness and intelligence, but I think that humans are unique, because of the (…) ability to understand the emotions of the other. And also because we are mental travelers in time. We can access the past in a very rich way and we can imagine many possible futures. That combination gives rise to something unique and strange, to our ability to think of ourselves and to know that we are perishable.”
All this combines in human’s capacity to creating art, reading, writing down thoughts and expanding its own knowledge. Paper has long been an ally in the brain’s never-ending desire for pushing boundaries and further developing itself. In fact, the Business Optimizer team has examined in the past how the physical act of writing or studying on paper has many benefits. One of which comes down to being the tool it helped mankind to expand communication skills.
One thing that sets humans apart is our use of language. Ricard Solé explains, “Language allows something very relevant. That is, that genetic information, an inheritance based purely on genes, is replaced to a great extent by information. This allows others to be taught; telling a story that will remain after the death of the person who gave it. This account can open the door to other revolutions, such as our ability to create technology.”
“The physical changes in the brain happen on a very large time scale,” continues Ricard Sole. “Neuroscience has taught us that the paper book, to learn, understand, memorize or establish relationships between parts of a speech is much more powerful than any digital medium. Despite the talk about how wonderful digital media is, for education that is far from true.”
The way we learn can be affected by many aspects. For example, when it comes to our ability to learn, the paper book is much more powerful than any digital medium. In fact, the Business Optimizer team has written in the past about how cognitive skills are better fueled through the use of paper and how comprehension is better achieved when having a physical support rather than a digital reading product. That’s not all. In 2017, Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar conducted a study where it concluded that paper boosts engagement and memory.
Ricard Sole states, “I will say that to me, who grew up in a more traditional education system, in which you had to invest time in thinking, in using your memory, and writing an essay required you to reflect on different parts of a problem… it causes some concern that this could be lost.”
Richard Solé’s research highlights the importance of considering the physical aspects of reading and learning and underscores the unique benefits that paper can provide. His findings challenge the widespread assumption that screens are always the best choice for learning and education and suggests that paper is still a valuable tool in today’s digital age. By incorporating the insights from Solé’s research into our educational practices, we can ensure that we are taking advantage of all the benefits that both paper and digital tools have to offer and creating the best learning environment for our students.