This is Your Brain on eBooks

In prepping for my CIL talk on Thursday, I came across these two eBook related articles that I wanted to share. The first is written by evolutionary neurobiologist Mark Changizi discussing the lack of spatial navigation cues for our brains to latch onto. Pull quote:

The web, from its text-shifting sites to its entire large-scale structure, is navigated with little or no actual navigation, and a lot of teleportation.

In nature, information comes with a physical address (and often a temporal one), and one can navigate to and from the address. Those raspberry patches we found last year are over the hill and through the woods — and they are still over the hill and through the woods.

And up until the rise of the web, the mechanisms for information storage were largely spatial and could be navigated, thereby tapping into our innate navigation capabilities. Our libraries and books — the real ones, not today’s electronic variety — were supremely navigable.


The web and e-books have upsides physical libraries do not, of course, but they are deeply lacking in spatial navigability, and so they don’t yet serve the brain-extension role that is within their potential. We should embrace the new technologies, but utilize them in novel ways that take seriously the topography of the information.

The second article comes from Time magazine health writer Maia Szalavitz and builds on Changizi’s argument. Pull quote:

This seems irrelevant at first, but spatial context may be particularly important because evolution may have shaped the mind to easily recall location cues so we can find our way around. That’s why great memorizers since antiquity have used a trick called the “method of loci” to associate facts they want to remember with places in spaces they already know, like rooms in their childhood home. They then visualize themselves wandering sequentially through the rooms, recalling the items as they go. […]

E-books, however, provide fewer spatial landmarks than print, especially pared-down versions like the early Kindles, which simply scroll through text and don’t even show page numbers, just the percentage already read. In a sense, the page is infinite and limitless, which can be dizzying. Printed books on the other hand, give us a physical reference point, and part of our recall includes how far along in the book we are, something that’s more challenging to assess on an e-book.

Combined with a TED talk by neuroscientist Neil Burgress talking about how our brains tell us where we are, it gave me a moment of pause. While there is a real push to use eBooks in the education setting, I’m wondering if and how our brains will adapt to this kind of container change. I don’t believe that it is a complete wash, but it sounds like the difference between flying with good visibility versus flying by instruments only. Without outside points of reference, it changes the operation of the aircraft completely.

I’m looking forward to hearing more studies on the subject, but I have a feeling that eBooks might be somewhat at odds with the way our brains evolved. The next decade should be fascinating to see how our brains adapt… or not.

(h/t: Andrew Sullivan)

14 thoughts on “This is Your Brain on eBooks

  1. Andy, sooner or later we’ll all be cyborgs with computers implanted in our brains. These will tell us where to go & what to do, and that we need to eat, sleep, mow the lawn & wipe our bottoms.

    Computers have changed the world, and they are continuing to change the course of human adaptation. eBooks are simply bad for the reasons mentioned in the study, which makes their publishers positively evil when combined with their prohibitive DRM schemes.

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  4. Hi Andy,

    This is slightly off to the side, but it relates to the articles you’ve linked to here. In 1987, a guy named Jeff Conklin wrote a truly excellent and oft-cited survey of hypertext systems up to that point. In that paper (which is available online here(.pdf)), Conklin talks about two disadvantages of hypertext systems: disorientation and cognitive overload.

    Disorientation is “the tendency to lose one’s sense of location and direction in a nonlinear document” and Cognitive Overload is “the additional effort and concentration necessary to maintain several tasks or trails at one time.” — As I see it, both of these are problems that still haven’t quite been licked with ebooks, which aren’t even non-linear.

    The problem with ebooks is essentially the same as that of the modern web browser: Only one page open at a time. A simple fix for this to create simple spatial visualization so it’s easy to see a number of pages at a swipe. Other fixes could be devised, I’m sure.

    Still, ebooks and ebook readers are not like regular books and likely never will be. Many of the points made in Sellen and Harper’s book The Myth of the Paperless Office (2001) very much still apply today.

    Thanks for looking critically at ebooks. Too many these days are getting caught up in the marketing technobabble and being sold features they don’t need while losing ones they do.

    • Thanks for the information, Oleg. Good to know what kind of basis that some of these scientists are looking at eBooks for.

  5. Both physical books and e-books are a good thing. I’ve been fascinated with libraries and books since I was a teen and now, 20+ years into my library career, I’m reading more than ever. First it was on my 2nd generation Sony Reader, and now on a 3rd generation Kindle. I can do without page numbers; the device does the bookmarking for me, and Calibre software lets me include or exclude a table of contents.

    Page numbers aren’t crucial in how much book context you later can recall.

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