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)