From our perch in Silicon Valley – where photocopiers are a quaint technology we are familiar with only from episodes of The Office – it is easy to assume that e-readers and pdfs will fully replace books and printouts.
It is the physicality of books and paper that make them seem inefficient. Do dead trees really have a place in the future? But it is their physicality, which, according to a recent article in Scientific American, helps us remember what we read, that may give books an edge over e-readers.
While the ideas and texts we read may seem to belong in a cerebral world of Great Gatsby quotes and scientific theories, our brains treat the written word as a physical thing:
“As far as our brains are concerned, however, text is a tangible part of the physical world we inhabit. In fact, the brain essentially regards letters as physical objects because it does not really have another way of understanding them.”
Since books have much more physical presence than words on a screen, this gives them a natural advantage over onscreen text:
“Beyond treating individual letters as physical objects, the human brain may also perceive a text in its entirety as a kind of physical landscape. When we read, we construct a mental representation of the text in which meaning is anchored to structure. The exact nature of such representations remains unclear, but they are likely similar to the mental maps we create of terrain—such as mountains and trails… We might recall that we passed the red farmhouse near the start of the trail before we started climbing uphill through the forest; in a similar way, we remember that we read about Mr. Darcy rebuffing Elizabeth Bennett on the bottom of the left-hand page in one of the earlier chapters.”
This experience is probably familiar to most people. This author can attest to flipping through an entire novel in search of a favorite quote and looking only at the bottom left corner of the book, remembering that the quote was on that part of the page. Or answering a test question on Chinese geography by remembering that he wrote notes on the subject in faded ink on the top right corner of a crinkled page of notebook paper.
Computer screens and e-readers, in contrast, lack these physical associations that aid our memory. As we scroll through text, there are no set locations to remember it by. Onscreen text also lacks the experience of flipping through pages, feeling the weight of the book, and writing on a set part of the page – all associations that help us remember and build a mental map of what we read and write.
On one hand, this is a call to action for designers. Abigail Sellen, author of The Myth of The Paperless Office, notes, “The implicit feel of where you are in a physical book turns out to be more important than we realized… I don’t think e-book manufacturers have thought enough about how you might visualize where you are in a book.”
It’s also a reminder of the value of paper and pen. Most people seem to intuitively understand this point, printing out papers or using a notebook when they want to really “dig in” to something. According to these findings, we should do so more often.